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Review: Toots Thielemans’ 90th Birthday Concert at JALC

The harmonica master is joined by friends at NYC bash

Kenny Werner, JALC, 9-12
Toots Thielemans at Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC, September 2012
Toots Thielemans and Eliane Elias, JALC, NYC, 9-12

Jazz legend and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans performed the first of two Jazz at Lincoln Center performance last weekend (Sept. 28-29), belatedly celebrating his 90th birthday, which took place on April 22. Thielemans has been on an international tour.

Among those paying tribute were American jazz pianists Herbie Hancock and Kenny Werner, and three Brazilian musicians-jazz guitarist, composer and vocalist Dori Caymmi; jazz pianist, composer and vocalist Eliane Elias; and jazz guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves-all of whom performed on Thielemans’ Brasil Project albums in 1992 and 1993. Holding down the rhythm section were bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Rafael Barata.

Werner opened Friday night’s performance at the Rose Theater by playing two ballads, “You Must Believe in Spring” and Bill Evans’ “Very Early.” Caymmi and Castro-Neves joined the band to play two Brazilian standards, including “Aquarela do Brasil.” After this tune, Caymmi shared that he first heard of Thielemans at a young age and was just as impressed as he was by Gil Evans, John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery.

Hancock opened the second set by recalling that he first heard Thielemans when he was 14 years old performing in Bronx, New York, then later with the George Shearing Quintet. Hancock commented on later playing with Thielemans on recordings with Quincy Jones. Hancock dedicated an improvised classical composition to Thielemans, and then joined him for a playful abstract duet with melodies from Miles Davis’ “Blue and Green.”

Next, Thielemans and Werner performed a medley of Sinatra tunes, “All the Way” and “My Way,” the harmonicist joined Elias to play her ballad “Moments,” which he played on her first album. They exchanged warm smiles as if they were reflecting on the first occasion they had played this tune.

Later, Elias and Castro-Neves played several Brazilian tunes, including an original composition by Antonio Carlos Jobim, “So Danco Samba.” Elias engaged the audience with her beautiful singing, piano playing and samba dance moves.

Toots Thielemans was witty and charismatic. He certainly showed the audience that he is still the master of improvisations on the harmonica.

Additional photos are at Ben Johnson’s photo gallery. Click here.

Originally Published