20 Feb 2019 AT 01:58 PM

“Stevie Wonder is everything you’d expect, times a thousand”

Ahead of his set at the Emirates Airline Dubai Jazz Festival, Frédéric Yonnet talks Quincy Jones’s birthday party and playing harmonica with Stevie Wonder
20 Feb 2019 AT 01:58 PM
“Stevie Wonder is everything you’d expect, times a thousand”

Hi Fred. Not long until your flight over now. Are you excited?
Yes! It’s going to be my first time performing in Dubai so I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve done some private events in the UAE – especially Abu Dhabi – but nothing like this.

Sounds fun. Do you still get nervous performing for a big crowd?
I would be nervous if I didn’t know what to do, what to say or what to play to the audience. But in this case I am far from that. I am confident that the show is strong and that people are going to enjoy it. So I’m excited and nervous to deliver it but I’m not anxious. I’m excited to change the way people think about the harmonica.

Of course. Now, the harmonica isn’t the first instrument most teenage boys reach for…
Well, I started with drums when I was very young. But it was hard to practice. So I went from something that I could not carry around to something that was very practical. The harmonica is like a hidden secret. And if you lose it, you can get another one – it’s not very expensive. On top of that, I grew up with asthma and discovered it helped to strengthen my lungs.

And it’s what lead to you going on tour with Stevie Wonder, after all. How did that happen?
I met Stevie backstage at the Grammys in 2006. When Dave [Chappelle, another of Yonnet’s close pals] introduced me, we basically started talking about the harmonica right away. I pulled it out of my pocket and performed some of his songs. He was holding my arm to really hear the music and feel my body playing for him. We’ve been friend ever since. When he decided to tour for the 50th anniversary of Songs In The Key Of Life – my favourite album of all time – he invited me to play the harmonica on a few songs.

What is he like in real life?
You know, he is a magnified version of what you’d imagine him to be. Stevie is everything you would expect times one thousand. Extremely generous, very graceful, very competitive. But you’re overwhelmed with his generosity and kindness.

What a guy. And what about performing with Prince?
Prince is whole different ball game. I feel he really goes off the reaction of the audience. Basically improvises. He moulds the music in the moment with the live band in responds to what he gets from the audience, and I learned a lot from that. He’s also very funny, very surprising at times. Also generous and very intense.

We can imagine… Last year you performed at Quincy Jones’ 85th birthday party, too?
It was fantastic. Everyone was there, Dave, Stevie, Oprah, John Legend, Gladys Knight, Usher…I hosted with a band at the after-party. Quincy and Stevie literally stayed until 7am. I don’t know how they do it, their energy levels are on another planet.

Wow. We’re usually in bed by nine. So, if you have a power band with three people (dead or alive) who do you pick?
That is an amazing question… Jimmy Hendrix on Guitar. I would take Joe Zawinul on keyboard, and it would have to be Prince
on vocals.

Frédéric Yonnet will support Snow Patrol at Dubai Jazz Festival on February 20.