Monday, October 15, 2012

Album Review: Toots Thielemans European Quartet “90 yrs”


90 Yrs Box Set
  • Audio CD + DVD (September 25, 2012) Original Release Date: 2012 Number of Discs: 2
  • Label: Challenge ASIN: B007QEHRL8 In-Print Editions: MP3 Music

"The harmonica has long been regarded as the humblest of musical
instruments, and yet, as Mr. Thielemans and Mr. Maret show, when played at its best, it is more than capable of expressing the deepest feelings in the human experience." - Wall Street Journal

Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans, known to the world for near a century as Toots is most identified with the harmonica, “that humblest of instruments”, although he is a more than competent guitar player and aspired to be as good as fellow Belgian, Django Reinhardt. He is also renowned for his ability to whistle.  Rightfully recognized as one of the greatest ‘harp’ players ever.

He has worked as a bandleader, as a sideman (notably on many projects with composer/arranger Quincy Jones), and has appeared on dozens of film soundtracks. In 2009 he became NEA Jazz Master, the highest honour for a jazz musician in the United States.

Old Spice Commercial 1971

You may be wondering what the heck an Old Spice commercial is doing in the middle of a music review. Well, that’s easy. Hear that whistle? That’s Toots Thielemans. He is perhaps best-known to the American public for whistling the melody in commercials for Old Spice cologne.

Thielemans kicked off his career as a guitar player. In 1949 he joined a jam session in Paris with the great sax and clarinet soloist Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach and some other cats. In 1949 and 1950 he participated in European tours with Benny Goodman, making his first record in Paris with fellow band member, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. But it wasn’t until he moved to the US in 1952 where he was a member of Charlie Parker's All-Stars and worked with Miles Davis and Dinah Washington that he started playing the harmonica more and more on records. He played and recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Jaco Pastorius, Peggy Lee, The George Shearing Quintet, Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, The Happenings, Astrud Gilberto, Shirley Horn, Elis Regina, Billy Joel (that whistle on the opening of The Stranger. You guest it, Toots Thielemans), Paul Simon and many others.

This past April, Toots Thielemans, arguably the most famous harmonica player worldwide, turned 90-years old. To celebrate this milestone, Thielemans has released this  live CD/DVD package with the support of his European quartet - pianist Karel Boehlee, drummer Hans van Oosterhout and double-bass player Hein Van de Geyn. The album is comprised of eleven tracks recorded over the past five years during Thielemans' latest globetrotting tours while the accompanying DVD focuses on his group's latest concert in Japan.

“The Dragon”
90 Yrs. encompasses the impressive array of Thielemans' career. The album opens with the track "Waltz for Sonny," a bow to Sonny Rollins and a musical brother of Thielemans' "Bluesette," perhaps his best known tune with him as the band leader. The next track, "The Dragon," was written by Thielemans for the Japanese movie Yasha (1985), a nice, open and mysterious tune; he also wrote the original soundtrack for the film together with Mitsuhiko Saito.

"Sno' Peas" is originally written by Phil Markowitz and made famous by legendary pianist Bill Evans, with whom Thielemans had played and recorded with Evans while living in the USA. "Sno' Peas" has been on Thielemans' list of favorites for a long time. "One Note Samba" and "Wave," composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim, are great examples of very intelligent, yet accessible writing. Obvious and singable to the superficial ear, and full of hidden details for the specialist such as Thielemans - they leave so much space for creativity and personal interpretation, yet remain always very clear in their own identity at the same time.


"Dat Mistige Rooie Beest (That Misty Red Animal)" was composed by the famous conductor Rogier van Otterloo for the Dutch movie Turks Fruit (Turkish Fruit) and featured Thielemans' recognizable harmonica sound on the original soundtrack.

During his time with Dave Brubeck, "In Your Own Sweet Way" often kicked off their concerts, providing a wonderful vehicle for improvisation with the 8-bar interlude, opening doors to new interpretations. Thielemans is also a great admirer of Louis Armstrong, "the greatest jazz musician ever," and as a boy was bitten by the jazz bug upon hearing the icon's voice. Thielemans includes "What a Wonderful World" as a dedication to Armstrong.

"The Dolphin," written by Luiz Eça, is another very challenging harmonic, yet such lovely melodic song. Thielemans has also worked with pop musicians in addition to big jazz artists. In the seventies Thielemans was invited to join Paul Simon on a long tour and was featured on the song, "I Do It For Your Love." Thielemans has kept it on his repertoire since then.

“The Dolphin”

The last song on the record, "Old Friend," is a very special one. Thielemans wrote it when he was young as a harmonic exercise, yet it is so full of feeling. With adding strings by the Shinozaki Strings from Tokio, this is a heartfelt rendition of this special composition that Toots Thielemans dedicated to his father.

This album is a marvelous celebration of one of the most important, unique, and most importantly, talented musicians of the last 100 years. Helping him celebrate are his European Quartet; Toots Thielemans / harmonica. Karel Boehlee / piano, synthesizer
Hein Van de Geyn / double bass, Hans van Oosterhout / drums.

The DVD alone, is worth the price of the album. It includes some great footage shot in 2011 and called Live Registrations ,  “Autumn Leaves”,  “Turks Fruit” (see video above), “Midnight Cowboy”,  “Saint Thomas”, “ Blusette”
and “What a Wonderful World”.

Between the eleven tunes on the CD, and the DVD, you get a deep insight into the musical world of Toots Thielemans. You can enjoy the love between the musicians in the band, and most amazingly, Thielemans plays strong and is still a force with the feeling and the vast knowledge of jazz and music in general. The qualities of each player, the interaction, the joy and the playfulness and seriousness and above all; the musical story of a man that doesn’t just play music but becomes it.


The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

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