1991 release. Mulgrew Miller (p) ups the stakes.
- Ron Wynn (All Music Guide)
========= from the cover ==========
Toots Thielemans is a unique artist, and the many facets of this talent have never been better displayed than on this delightful record. With characteristic modesty, he calls it "a good snapshot of the way I play today," but it is really a portrait that captures the essence of his remarkable artistry at a new peak of maturity. We hear him in a variety of settings: alone with his beloved harmonica; accompanied by just a metronome (!) or by his own guitar, and, in the company of a marvelous trio, combining his whistling and guitar or using the harmonica as the full-fledged jazz horn it becomes in his gifted hands.
"I'm going back to my roots here," said Toots. "When Kiyoshi Koyama, whom I first met when I was a guest on an album by Marc Johnson, suggested that I do an all-solo record, I had six months to think about it, and I experimented, practiced, sent some sample tapes to Koyama, and the ideas developed. But all alone - even with overdubbing - seemed a bit much. And it had been a long time since I recorded with a great black rhythm section. And so... Koyama is a producer who lets you do what you want but also guides you, believes in you, and has enthusiasm. So we decided to do some things solo, but also with Mulgrew Miller, Rufus Reid and Louis Nash, whom I'd worked with just once before, on a gig I had in 1989 in Portland, Oregon, and it felt so good!
"I'd known Mulgrew as a hard swinger, but he can also be so lyrical - he has such concern for melodic beauty. And Rufus sounds so good when he fills in behind you. And Louis Nash I'd first met at a jazz party in Holland, where there were many fine drummers, but he stood out. When we got in the studio everything went so well that we finished way ahead of schedule." Indeed, the foursome sounds like old friends, going in and out together, making the music flow.
It flows, too, when Toots is all alone, with a rhythm, implicit or explicit, as natural as breathing. He has a beautiful sound and conception on the guitar (which he was inspired to take up at 19 when he heard the great Django Reinhardt in his native Belgium), and his whistling is pure and musical ("you can be serious about wanting to enjoy yourself), but it is the harmonica on which he excells.
When he talks about this instrument, it's clear how much he loves it. "I play a chromatic harmonica - Hohner makes my own model, according to my likes. Each hole has four notes - two blown, two inhaled - and it has the range of the flute: three octaves. It started as a hobby but it became my life. Some things you cannot do on it -if you want to make a run from C to A, you can't do it legato - but what it can do, nothing else can. You need to have your own style of phrasing - forget legato, or you sound like a toy if you try to play something that wasn't meant for it. But if you master it and find out what you can do, it's a great companion.
"I'm playing guitar more again, now that the strength is returning to my hands after the stroke I had some years ago. I can't play as many notes as some people, but I can pick the good ones! I look for the pretty notes, like Lester Young; he was one of the first to do that. Fresh, but not far out."
Some might think that playing the harmonica with just a metronome behind you is pretty far out, but the result makes eminent musical sense. "It came about when I was doing some work in Germany as a soloist with radio orchestras, and they would ask me to pick tunes and give them my keys and metronome markings. So I bought a metronome, and to my surprise, I had fun with it - once I played the blues for half an hour with it. Of course, it just goes 'click, click,' but even if it's bare time (no brushes, no cymbals), in jazz, when you swing, it's not the time itself but the way musicians react to the time. I enjoy it."
On Blues On Time, Toots and his metronome sound like a man walking and playing, and Toots wails the blues, building tension both harmonically and rhythmically. This beats a drum machine, hands down. On 'Round Midnight, Toots and his harmonica are all alone, creating and sustaining a mood reflecting the spirit of the famous tune. The rhythm is in the flow of the phrasing. Toots uses Dizzy's extension, then dips into Blue Monk for an appropriate tip of the cap to the great com- poser. The texture of harmonica and guitar is very appealing on When I Fall In Love, a beautiful ballad performance. It's quite a sensation to hear the same man playing two entirely different instruments together. A technical tour de forced Yes. But also a wholly musical experience. Toots shows his Bird roots in the way he improvises on the theme here.
On Laura, another stunning ballad interpretation, he uses the same combination and stretches his improvisatory wings. "The first American jazz band to come to Belgium after the war was Don Redman's and he featured the great Don Byas on this tune; I've loved it ever since." The elaborate cadenza is in Byas's groove. On Windmills Of Your Mind, Toots is alone again with his harmonica in a very free improvisation into which he interlaces other tunes from the same period - a kind of kaleidoscope in warm colours.
The tunes with the quartet get into a lot of grooves - Toots is a true groovemaker. On Footprints ("I love Wayne Shorter - his revolutions are so unexcepted") he employs the whistling and guitar overdub ("I started to whistle professionally, so to speak, when I was with George Shearing and Al McKibbon, the bassist, told me, "Man, you whistle better than you play!' I enjoy it. It's not calculated"). His guitar is mellow, and Mulgrew Miller finds those "pretty notes". Rufus has a spot, displaying his own sound and approach. When Toots takes it out, he manages to inflect his whistling in a remarkable way.
Gymnopedie, by the innovative French composer Eric Satie, was a request for Toots to play on a jingle for the Tokyo Gas Company. This is a very warm, emotional performance by the quartet, featuring beautiful interplay and Miller at his best his treble touch is anything but brittle. On Tadd Dameron's If You Could See Me Now all four players really get into a creative blend as the explore the many possibilities offered by this great melody and structure. They go in and out of strict time but never drop a stitch, and the mood is sustained.
When it was a big hit many years ago, What Kind Of Fool Am I overstayed its welcome. I'd become very tired of it, but it's a pleasant surprise to rediscover it here (Toots has a knack for finding good things to play.) Again, the quartet impresses with its togetherness. They swing, Toots showing some of his bebop, but in 1990 style, and Miller making one think of Red Garland, he's so clean and pretty, but also with a con- temporary flavour in his harmonies. The tag ending is a nice touch.
Sultry Serenade is from the vast repertoire of one of Toots' heroes. Duke Ellington (though it was composed by Tyree Glenn before he joined Duke; Glenn was also a member of the 1946 Don Redman band). The tempo is very relaxed, the approach melodic and swinging, and Miller's subtle octaves add a Ducal flavouring behind Toots' mellow combination of whistling and guitar (nice fills on the out-chorus).
We end with the blues: a very special blues. C To G Bluesis another tour deforce, a brilliant display of musicianship and humour as Toots traverses all the keys (with sharps and flats), making the often difficult transitions so smoothly and without ever stopping to swing. In his good hands, the harmonica is indeed a "serious" instrument.
As I listened to Toots here, it struck me that in this age of electronic instruments, the sound and timbre of the harmonica have somehow become more "mainstream" than they used to be - even though it is also such a direct and human instrument.
Whatever he choses to do and however he combines his startling talents, Toots Thielemans is a master musician with his own stories to tell.
- Dan Morgenstern (Director, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University)