On April 22, Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidor “Toots” Thielemans turns 90 years old. Four weeks before that comes a look back on one of the richest and yet disregarded career in jazz music, Yesterday & Today. About a year ago we investigated some recent live recordings of his and found him still in great form, but that was just the latest in a line of recordings stretching back six and a half decades. Any complete assessment of his career would be virtually impossible to do in the space of an article, but a set of wisely selected recordings that reveals his artistry from several vantage points can allow you to absorb through your ears in a couple of hours time what would take days or weeks to digest from a hefty-sized biography. Yesterday & Today does just that.
If you already have the important entries in Thielemans’ discography, read on anyway, because this retrospective isn’t a greatest hits collection. An assemblage of mostly rare and never-before-released tracks spanning fifty-five years, Yesterday & Today covers Toots in just about every possible setting, from solo to full orchestras; playing guitar, whistle and, naturally, his trusty harmonica; and alongside luminaries such as George Shearing, Cal Tjader, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, Bucky Pizzarelli, JJ Johnson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Quincy Jones, Phil Woods and Kenny Werner…just to name a few.
The other compelling aspect is how the music varies over time, from bebop to post bop and Brazilian jazz to easy listening and even fusion. Each track tears down bit by bit the notion that is merely a chromatic harmonica player who is trying to play an instrument that doesn’t belong in jazz. He shows time and again that it does, and excels on guitar as well. Somewhat derivative of his fellow Belgian native Django Reinhardt, Toots has a highly developed guitar style of his own (such as the unique way he clips his notes on “Hot Toddy”) and feels right at home with JJ Johnson and Coltrane’s rhythm section for “Lullaby of Jazzland” (Youtube below).
But ultimately, the thing that makes Thielemans special is his harmonica. This is a harmonica player who, as Quincy Jones so rightly describes, “goes for the heart and make you cry.” Well, maybe not necessarily cry, but he can often be quite affecting. His harmonica is doleful on “Melancholic Harmonica” and the album-ending duet with Werner “What A Wonderful World,” and alternately buoyant like on the Afro-Cuban take on “Caravan” or on a big band rendering of “Caravan.”
No matter the time period or situation, Thielemans’ sound is instantly recognizable, even to me as a preschooler watching Sesame Street—that’s him playing that mouth harp on the theme song—and with various other soundtrack work he’s done at least since the first track, a 1946 recording originally meant for a cartoon, he’s been in people’s ears everywhere for many generations, but not explicitly acknowledged. Yesterday & Today is the right acknowledgement for this jazz and harmonica giant.
Yesterday & Today releases on March 27, by the Out Of The Blue/Naxos imprint.
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