Thursday, July 18, 2013

Toots Thielemans: Toots 90

Challenge Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Toots 90

Most jazz fans are familiar with Toots Thielemans, and for a very simple reason: His unlikely primary instrument is the harmonica.

Thielemans was born in Brussels, Belgium, in April 1922, which makes him 91 years old ... and he’s still performing. He began his musical career as a guitarist, and played that instrument in 1949, when he joined a jam session in Paris with Miles Davis, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and others. A year later, Thielemans was touring Europe with Benny Goodman’s band. 

Thielemans moved to the States in 1952, worked with Parker and Davis again, and then joined George Shearing’s group. During this period, Thielemans began to whistle with his guitar, and to play the harmonica. 

That opened the gate.

It’s hard to find an artist with whom Thielemans didn’t work, from that point onward. He also became a fixture in audio commercials and film soundtracks.

Everybody who has played the harmonica knows that it’s relatively easy to learn, but it’s more difficult to use as a single-note instrument than a “chordal” one. It’s even tougher to create expressive music with a harmonica. Thielemans is a master at doing both. 

This album, which celebrates his 90th birthday, contains both a CD and a DVD; the former features 11 tunes, three of which — “Waltz for Sonny,” “The Dragon” and “Old Friends” — are his own compositions. The DVD, which covers 2011 concert performances, contains half a dozen of the tunes for which he is most recognized: “Autumn Leaves,” “Turks Fruit,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Saint Thomas,” “Bluesette” and “What a Wonderful World.” Thielemans is supported by Karel Boelell (piano), Hein Van de Geyn (double bass) and Hans van Oosterhout (drums). 

This wonderful release may have a bit too much harmonica for a single sitting, but it’s all choice. Let’s hope that Thielemans still is with us when it’s time to celebrate his first century!

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