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Toots Thielemans: Yesterday & Today

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This two-CD career retrospective includes rare and, in some cases, previously unheard tracks spanning the 60-plus-year career of the Belgian jazz harmonica virtuoso Jean-Baptiste “Toots” Thielemans. Compiled by producer-pianist and Thielemans’ personal friend Cees Schrama, the collection opens with his early pre-States stabs at modern jazz with his Belgian contemporaries. A 1946 recording of the Count Basie-inspired “Jazz Band Ball” has Thielemans playing guitar in Charlie Christian mode, while his two 1949 originals, “Crazy Bop” and “It Had to Be Bird,” find him in a more in modernist Billy Bauer vein on the six-string.

We first hear the familiar Thielemans harmonica voice on his 1950 boogie-woogie number “Nalen Boogie,” accompanied by a decidedly pre-Jimmy Smith organist along with banjo, bass and drums. His first Stateside recording, a wild novelty number entitled “Dynamite” with Dick Hyman on organ and Harry Reser on banjo, comes in 1952. And while those early recordings may have historic value and hold interest mainly for Thielemans completists, the real gems here are the 1953 tracks with the George Shearing Quintet (“Love Is Just Around the Corner,” “Caravan”) and a string of cool 1958 recordings featuring a core trio of Hank Jones, Doug Watkins and Art Taylor. These tracks are highlighted by the appearance of Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Barry Galbraith on a soothing Ralph Burns arrangement of “Early Autumn.”

A 1964 recording of Manny Albam’s “Lullaby of Jazzland” has Thielemans playing some slick, swinging guitar alongside McCoy Tyner, J.J. Johnson, Richard Davis and Elvin Jones, while two 1966 recordings, the stately title track and a bouncy 3/4 romp through “Cherokee,” feature Thielemans accompanied by full orchestra. An oddly affecting rendition of “O Susannah” with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Bucky Pizzarelli fully reflects the spirit of 1968. Elis Regina is featured alongside Thielemans’ singing harmonica on the alluring bossa nova “Barquinho,” and Danish violinist Svend Asmussen (“The Fiddling Viking”) plays through a wah-wah pedal on the funky Chet Atkins tribute “Mr. Nashville.”

The second disc is largely devoted to Thielemans’ work in the ’70s with producers Quincy Jones and Schrama (including a wonderful solo fingerstyle guitar performance of Ellington’s “Black Beauty”). Thielemans’ familiar melodic whistling is highlighted on the 1978 track “Fritiof Anderssons Paradmarsch,” recorded in Sweden. Later highlights include his intimate harmonica-bass duet with Marc Johnson on “Spartacus Love Theme,” his harmonica interplay with Shirley Horn on a sparse 1991 rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and a lush 2001 rendition of “What a Wonderful World” with Kenny Werner providing lush synth accompaniment. What a wonderful life.

Originally Published