I’m convinced that Toots Thielemans is one of those jazz musicians we’ve all heard but we’ve never heard of.
Now sure, in the inner circles his name is synonymous with the art form. But to those of us new to the game, Toots Thielemans isn’t the household name he ought to be. The harmonica player has, after all, worked with the likes of Quincy Jones, Bill Evans, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, and many others. And he’s played on several film scores, including Midnight Cowboy and Sugarland Express. Hell, Toots even was a harmonica soloist on Sesame Street.
And yet I must confess that this recording, European Quartet LIVE, is my first interaction with this renowned presence on disc. Colour me more than a little embarrassed.
With the shameful confession over and done with, I can now say that Toots is one of those musicians that connects immediately. His playing, surging through my speakers as it is even now, strips away all pretensions and questions. It is soulful, pure and honest.
The record features Thielemens on harmonica, Karel Boehlee on piano and synth, Hein Van de Geyn on double bass, and Hans van Oosterhout on drums.
The music comes from a number of live recordings, with much love given to “the fifth member of the band” Chris Weeda. He’s the sound engineer and his work is also all over the recording. The musical soul of the quartet shines through thanks to the beautiful job Weeda has done orchestrating everything.
Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” kicks off the album. It’s a cool, intimate piece that sets the scene for a relaxing evening of music. Toots’ playing is smooth and dignified, gliding sensitively over twinkling piano. The track organically dips into the groove on another Gershwin classic in “Summertime.” Boehlee’s piano rolls thick, while Toots covers the vocal lines with thick flourishes of colour.
Elsewhere, the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer classic “The Days of Wine and Roses” is a vibrant, savvy number. The quartet knows how to hold back, with Toots’ subtle playing carving his initials deep into the song. Van de Geyn’s delightfully faint solo is accented by wise bursts of harmonica.
The quartet’s natural, easy flow carries through the live recordings. With music taken from various sets in 2006, 2007 and 2008, it’s very nice to see that there’s no loss in continuity among the players. The band plays tightly and consistently on the recordings, venturing through the material with sharpness and unmistakable, unavoidable spirit.
On top of providing a cool hour of music, this Toots Thielemans recording will always hold a special place in my musical library. It is, after all, my first and certainly not last experience exploring the beautiful sounds of jazz done right with this remarkable Belgium-born musician.