Saturday, March 24, 2012

Toots Thielemans: Yesterday and Today

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“This double CD may well contain the best Toots Thielemans you NEVER heard. A stunning collection of both rare and great music, starting with his earliest recording as a soloist and ending with a memorable duet in the new millennium.”
- Jeroen de Valk

“Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidor Thielemans was born in Brussels, April 29 1922. He never had any formal musical education but has been playing music for most of his life. Already as a three-year old, he stated in many interviews, he was playing the accordion in the bar his parents owned. He purchased a guitar and a harmonica as a teenager and taught himself to play jazz while listening to records during the occupation.”
- Jeroen de Valk

“Toots is Toots; his music is always emotionally engaging and fun to listen to.  He has a gift: he hears it, he plays it. Some of the things that come out of his harmonic just take your breath away.”
- The Editorial Staff at JazzProfiles

April 29, 2012 will mark the 90th birthday of Toots Thielemans and you can locate an earlier JazzProfiles feature on this singular Jazz harmonica player, guitarist and whistler by going here.

As part of the celebration of Toots’ forthcoming 90th birthday, Cees Schrama, has selected thirty-eight [38] tracks spanning over sixty [60] years of Thielemans’ career and is issuing them on March 27, 2012 as a two CD set entitled Toots Thielemans: Yesterday and Today [Out of the Blue T2CD2011052].

Much of the music on this double CD retrospective has been hard to find for many years; some of it has not been released before in a digital format; some of it has never been released in the United States.

The compilation is a magnificent tribute to one of the world’s great musicians, whatever the genre.

Whether you’ve been a fan of Toots’ music for years or whether you are looking for a place to begin to familiarize yourself with it, this presentation is a must for your collection.

Aside from his more notable associations over the years with George Shearing and Quincy Jones, also represented in this collection are a slew of obscurities and oddities including Toots’ performance in big band arrangements by Jack Andrews, Gary McFarland and Ralph Burns, in small groups with J.J. Johnson, Hank Jones and Herbie Hancock, in a gorgeous version of Alex North’s Love Theme from Spartacus in a duo with bassist Marc Johnson and in a beautiful solo rendering of Ellington’s Black Beauty.

Toots is Toots; his music is always emotionally engaging and fun to listen to.  He has a gift: he hears it, he plays it. Some of the things that come out of his harmonic just take your breath away.

Toots Thielemans: Yesterday and Today [Out of the Blue T2CD2011052] comes with a insert booklet that details background information about the selected recordings, biographical information about Toots’ career and a collection of photographs.

Here are some excerpts as written and compiled by the noted Jazz writer and historian Jeroen de Valk.

“Producer Cees Schrama, a personal friend, selected all these treasures, looking for recordings that follow Toots' long and impressive career and are hard or simply impossible to purchase on CD. Some of the tracks -for example the 1946 recording, initially made as a soundtrack for a cartoon - were never issued anywhere. Others - among them the tracks with George Shearing - were issued on singles and then disappeared.

Cees got assistance from two Thielemans-collectors, who provided him with a wealth of rare material: Jean-Paul Gardavoir and Wim Crama. Studio wizard Marcel Booij managed to re-master the sound of these at times primitive recordings.

The result is a fitting tribute to Toots Thielemans, who was the second European musician to develop a highly individual sound in the US-dominated jazz world. The first one was, of course, guitarist Django Reinhardt. The latter was also born in Belgium - only twelve years before Toots - and was also christened Jean-Baptiste before acquiring a stage name.

Toots started out as a Django-inspired guitarist but became instantly recognizable when he started whist­ling along with his guitar improvisations. More fame came when listeners, musicians and producers discovered he was turning the chromatic harmonica into a serious jazz instrument.

Cees - a professional pianist and organist himself - first shook hands with Toots in 1974. Toots was performing then in Tros Sesjun, a Dutch radio show that would last for over thirty years, presenting live jazz every Thursday evening. Thielemans would be headlining the show seven times. Cees, who hosted the show, heard that Thielemans had an apartment in New York; writer Arthur Miller, once Marilyn Monroe's husband, was his neighbor. But he was working more in Europe at that time, where he had a second home in Brussels.

‘Toots played with our house band featuring keyboard man Rob Franken, who would become his regular accompanist. They started the concert with There Is No Greater Love. A real dazzling virtuoso performance which made the whole band swing like mad. He built up the tension and built and built... and then, he managed to hold back for a while, allowing us to breath. I was standing there in awe and thought: “This has to be put on record.” After the concert, we had a talk and he agreed to have a selection of this concert put on LP for Polydor, the label I was working for as a record producer.’

On this track, the guitar solo is played by Joop Scholten. In all the other tracks on this twofer, not only the harmonica solos but all the guitar solos were played by Toots as well. Needless to say, this means that in some cases his contributions had to be recorded separately.

Toots had no manager at that time; he took care of all business matters himself. Cees: ‘He did so with care. He was and still is extremely reliable. He is always on time, wherever the gig may be, and always in peak form, musically. Always creative and inspired. Even now, while approaching his ninetieth birthday, he still sits up-front on the stage on a bar stool and does most of the playing himself. Usually, he won't let his sidemen stretch out too long. People buy tickets to hear him, so it's him we're going to hear. Toots has unbelievable stamina and is consistently enthusiastic about music. Music is his life. He always carries his harmonica around, wherever he is.’”

A year after his Sesjun debut, Toots came back to the show, this time with his regular band, which included Franken and the Danish bass legend Niels-Henning 0rsted Pedersen. From this concert, That Misty Red Animal (Dat Mistige Rooie Beest) survives on this compilation. It was composed for the soundtrack of Turkish Delight (Turks Fruif), one of the many, many movies from both sides of the Atlantic in which Toots' harmonica can be heard.

Cees issued a selection from both concerts on an LP, simply called Toots Thielemans Live. Another year later, in 1976, Toots did his third Sesjun concert; parts from this concert were available on the LP Toots Thielemans Live 2. ‘Both albums were highly successful in Europe, the US and Japan. But only a few tracks were put on CD in the course of the years.’ …

Initially, Toots planned to be a mathematics teacher and thus went to the Brussels University. But poor health - he suffers from asthma and had to be taken to a hospital several times - prevented him from attending the university regularly. So he decided to concentrate on music. His first influence was Django Reinhardt, then he listened to the Benny Goodman Quartet and Lester Young. A few years later, Charlie Parker came along, causing 'the change in my life'.

Toots - who borrowed his stage name from swing alto saxophonist Toots Mondello and arranger/composer/ trumpeter Toots Camarata - played with various US musicians, both in New York and in Europe, before emigrating to the US, late 1951. He joined George Shearing's band with which he toured all over the world for over six years.

Thielemans may have had a certain impact on The Beatles. In 1959, John Lennon saw Toots performing with Shearing's band a couple of times. Lennon apparently liked Toots' harmonica playing and guitar selection: a Rickenbacker. Lennon decided to purchase a similar Rickenbacker himself and also adopted the chromatic harmonica, which was used on the Beatles' early recordings.

By the time Toots left Shearing's band, he found himself in constant demand as a first-call studio musician. Producers liked his new sound, originated by whistling along with his guitar lines, and used it in commercials. His harmonica can be heard in countless film scores; Turkish Delight, The Getaway and Midnight Cowboy, to name just a few. He is also heard on recordings with popular singers such as Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Natalie Cole.

Toots, though, never forgot his jazz roots and both recorded and toured with Bill Evans, Jaco Pastorius and many, many more. He kept touring with his own jazz outfits and composed the jazz standard Bluesette. …

Toots is still working as I'm writing this, late 2011, although he limits himself to two, three gigs a week. He is brought to his concerts and record dates with a limousine, assisted by a tour manager.

Quincy Jones, the New York composer, arranger and composer who often employed Toots, once stated: ‘I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he ranks with the best that jazz has ever produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry. We have worked together more times than I can count and he always keeps me coming back for more.’”

As you would imagine, it was very difficult to single out one track from the comprehensive overview of Toots’ music contained in Toots Thielemans: Yesterday and Today [Out of the Blue T2CD2011052].

Ultimately, in order to page homage to both Toots and Cees Schrama, Toots long-time friend and the producer of these recordings, I selected Big Bossa, a tune written by Cees for the Polydor LP Old Friend [2925 029]. It features Toots along with Ferdinand Povel on tenor saxophone in a wonderful arrangement by Cees which he scored for a full orchestra including strings.