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Music Review: Toots Thielemans – Yesterday & Today

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If the new double CD collection of rare tracks from harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans demonstrates anything with clarity, it is that this man could play in 1946, the year of the first recordings, and can still play in 2001, the year of the last track. I’m not sure that Thielemans aficionados need such a demonstration, but anyone who might have had the idea that the harmonica was little more than a toy needs to hear what this man can do with it. Think what Charlie Parker could do with the sax or Miles Davis with the trumpet – this is what Thielemans, at his best, can do with his harmonica.

Yesterday & Today is a set of 37 previously unavailable recordings selected by friend and fellow musician Cees Schrama from over Thielemans’ lengthy career. They feature the musician not only on harmonica, but also guitar, as well as some of his trademark whistling. He plays with everything from trios to big bands. He also plays solo and even sings.

He plays with lesser known European musicians; some of them the biggest names in American jazz. He plays blues, swing, and plenty of modern jazz. There may be some pieces that seem little more than precious bagatelles, but there’s hardly a track that doesn’t have something to make you smile. More than enough exhibit real power, giving a generous sample of Thielemans’ genius.

If you can tell something about a musician by the company he keeps, here are just a few of the names that appear on the album: George Shearing, J.J. Johnson, McCoy Tyner, Cal Tjader, Bucky Pizzarelli, Grady Tate, Clark Terry, Dick Hyman. I could go on, but you get the point. These are all stars, and Thielemans is at home with the best of them. Many of the album’s highlights come from the 1960’s, when he was showing these guys his stuff. “Lullaby of Jazzland” is a 1964 recording with Johnson, Tyner, Richard Davis, and drummer Elvin Jones and has Thielemans playing some dynamic guitar. A 1965 recording of “Soul Bird” has him working with Latin American rhythms on the harmonica along with Terry, Tate, Bob Brookmeyer, Mel Lewis and Gary McFarland among others. “Please Send Me Someone to Love” is blues, hot and steamy with Pizzarelli and Dick Hyman on the organ.

His early recordings aren’t bad either. The first CD opens with “Jazz Band Ball” a big band swinger from Brussels in 1946. “Crazy Bop” and “It Had to Be ‘Bird'” are from 1949 and have Thielemans working on the guitar in a modern mode with a trio in Paris. There are a couple of short boogies from 1950 and ’51, where he plays with quotations from other pieces. They make for an interesting comparison with some of his later work. “Dynamite,” with Dick Hyman and Harry Reser on banjo, is almost a novelty number. “Early Autumn” recorded with a larger ensemble shows him in a mellow mood.

Aside from his own playful vocal on “The Slickest Man in Town,” there is a smoking Shirley Horn vocal on “Someone to Watch Over Me” from 1991 on which he adds some elegant harmonica accents with remarkable restraint. He seems a lot more prominent on the earlier accompaniment to Elis Regina’s vocal with the Orchestra Elis Cinco on “Barquinho.” Other examples of his later playing include a 1995 recording of “Circle of Smiles” (the main theme of a popular Dutch television detective series) and the album’s concluding piece, “What a Wonderful World,” recorded in 2001.

These are just some of the gems that await the listener on Yesterday & Today. Whether it’s his rollicking whistling accompaniment on “Fritiof Anderssons Paradmarsch,” the haunting harmonica from “That Misty Red Animal,” the illuminating solo guitar version of Duke Ellington’s “Black Beauty,” or his laid-back take on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” this is a collection that has more than just variety and quantity. This is collection that has quality.

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