That Arlen’s songs are not universally popular could be attributed to the fact that they are performed predominantly in jazz circles. Or that they have become associated with a single artist: Over The Rainbow will be forever linked with Judy Garland; One For My Baby with Frank Sinatra; and It’s Only A Paper Moon, inevitably with Nat ‘King’ Cole.
20th-century musical legend ‘Toots’ Thielemans is determined to change this state of affairs. He has given Arlen’s repertoire a new context, providing his arranger Jurre Haanstra with an inspired basis for improvisations at the highest level.
And that takes daring – daring that on this CD results in musical magic. Arlen’s ballads and his jazz- and blues-inspired songs have been dusted off, given a good polish and now glisten in a new showcase. The chapter ‘Arlen’ in The Great American Songbook has been fascinatingly rewritten. Harold Arlen, born just over 100 years ago, could not have wished for a more fitting tribute.
Whether it has something to do with the fact that he studied mathematics when he was younger, he won’t say, but Thielemans, a musical phenomenon for more than 50 years, undeniably brings his own particular kind of “order” into existing, tried-and-tested melodies and harmonies. He enchants when he plays, switching from bittersweet nostalgia one moment to bubbling joy the next. His musical imprints are unmistakeable, just as great painters are recognisable by their use of form and colour. Jean-Baptiste ‘Toots’ Thielemans, elevated to the aristocracy when he was created a Baron by the Belgian King Albert II in 2001, is a universal artist.
Thielemans was one of the few Europeans to be embraced and wholly accepted into the heart of the American jazz scene in the early Fifties, a period which remains etched in his memory: “In the late Forties, I came into contact with the ‘King of Swing’, Benny Goodman, via Charlie Parker’s booking agent Billy Shaw. Goodman wanted to employ me immediately, but I wasn’t able to obtain a visa to stay in America. When Goodman came to Europe on a tour in 1949 he asked me to join him again and I ended up playing with him. During a concert in Stockholm, Charlie Parker came to hear us. I was playing guitar with Goodman’s band at the time and I apparently made an impression on ‘Bird’ because when I finally got a visa to return to the States, Parker asked me to play with him in a number of concerts there.”
Thielemans emigrated to America in 1951. He quickly became well known in jazz circles and was soon in great demand the world over as a performing artist and studio musician. This has made him a ‘world citizen’, with no less than six languages under his belt (“although I still make mistakes,” he freely admits). Melodic or melancholic, his harmonica always sounds fluent, pure and perfect, wherever he plays. He can be heard on numerous recordings accompanying musicians from all over the world, from Brazil to Sweden, from Japan to America. He has also performed on film soundtracks (Midnight Cowboy), for TV series (Sesame Street) and, memorably, with Louis Armstrong in a commercial for Chrysler Plymouth.
No one plays like Toots Thielemans. He has become a musical institution that to this day admits hardly any successors. For decades, the Belgian virtuoso has been consistently awarded first place in the category ‘Miscellaneous Instruments’ in the influential critics’ and readers’ polls conducted by the jazz magazine Downbeat. This once prompted jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown to say to Thielemans, in a now-famous statement: “Toots, the way you play the harmonica, they should not call it a miscellaneous instrument.”
“One thing led to the other,” says the ‘world citizen’. “After an introduction from clarinettist Tony Scott, the ball started rolling. George Shearing asked me to play guitar in his famous Quintet and we made records with Peggy Lee and Nat ‘King’ Cole.” As a soloist he recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Elis Regina, Paul Simon, plus the film soundtracks. The Brasil Projects I and II – which he worked on with Brazilian musicians such as Louis Bonfa, Oscar Castro-Neves, Ivan Lins, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento – were hugely successful CDs and demonstrated his great affinity with Brazilian jazz music. In recognition of his services to Brazilian music, Toots was made a Commander of the Order of Rio Branco in 2004, a title (and medal) which he received from the Brazilian ambassador to Belgium, Jeronimo Moscardo. In January 2006 Gilberto Gil, the Brazilian minister of culture, personally honoured Toots with the “Diploma de Excelência”.
If there is one jazz recording which deserves the title ‘classic’ then it has to be Affinity, recorded in 1978 with Bill Evans. Toots was scheduled to play only on one track but he got on so well with the legendary pianist that it unexpectedly turned into a project featuring both Bill Evans and Toots Thielemans. He has a story about this collaboration. Bill Evans himself asked Toots if he would like to play with him. Thielemans was going through a period of self-doubt and said to Evans that he wasn’t certain if he was up to it (at that time, Toots was ‘sidetracking’ musically speaking, and was engaged in a lot of commercial projects). He asked Evans if he would like to come to a concert of his before they started recording. When they were finally in the studio, Evans let Toots play on many more tracks. When he asked Evans if he thought he was playing too much, the pianist left the studio and returned some time later with the news that the harmonica virtuoso’s fee had been doubled. In hindsight, Affinity is possibly the most important recording that Toots has collaborated on. Many jazz musicians, especially in the States, have been influenced by the LP which was later re-released as a CD.
“The highpoint of my early performances in America – I still dream about them! – were the concerts with my hero and first great jazz inspiration, Charlie Parker,” recollects Thielemans. “I learned bebop at first hand with him. I played in Philadelphia for a week with Parker’s All Stars Band, together with Miles Davis and Milt Jackson. I was the only white guy, but it didn’t matter. The ‘Bird’ took me under his wing.”
Another great artist whom Toots has fond memories of working and recording with is the bass player Jaco Pastorius: “He served me the strongest coffee I have ever drunk in my whole life! The first time I met him was in Berlin, in 1979. He had just left Weather Report and was on a solo world tour. He was due to appear at the same festival as I was. Afterwards I heard that a journalist had asked him during a press conference which artist on the festival poster he would like to duo with. He had said, without hesitation: ‘Get me Toots!’ They proposed that he ask me. I can see it now: him, on his own, with his fretless Fender Jazz Bass, wandering about on the podium and then suddenly, out of the silence: ‘I would like to invite Toots Thielemans on stage!’ We played Sophisticated Lady. I’ll never forget the impression that Jaco made on me during that first meeting: a young Indian chief, complete with a colourful hair band around his head, his long hair flapping elegantly in the wind…
“Later on, he told me that his father had once said to him: ‘One day, my son, you’ll play with Toots and then you will have played with a real musician.’ I then understood what he had meant when he whispered in my ear after we had played Sophisticated Lady that time in Berlin: ‘My father was right’. I once had a telephone call from Jaco, one beautiful summer day in New York, asking me if I would like to play on his album Word Of Mouth. He didn’t have to ask me twice…”
The name Toots Thielemans is synonymous with the world of jazz. “Man, you’re not from Brussels, you’re from Mississippi!” Quincy Jones once said to him. In 1995, Mr Q. praised him further, saying: “I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument, he ranks with the best that jazz has ever produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry. We have worked together more times than I can count and he always has me coming me back for more.”
Quincy Jones is not the only artist who “comes back for more”. The initiator of this CD, Peter van der Heyden, had no trouble finding musicians who were willing to guest with Thielemans on a Harold Arlen songbook. Although most of them grew up on a diet of Jackson and Prince, they are very much aware that working with the Belgian master can only do wonders for their international reputations.
Among the chosen few is Lizz Wright who, according to the New York Times, has a voice that is “pitch-perfect, with a smoky, full-bodied texture.” Wright creates new inspirational boundaries with her rendition of Come Rain Or Come Shine, encouraged by Toots on the CD with the clearly audible words “Yeah, mama, yeah!” Thielemans himself feels that his own credo – “I am at my best in that little space between a smile and a tear” – is reflected in this song. “‘Rain’ is ‘a tear’ and ‘shine’ is ‘a smile’,” he says. “The song also has a jazzy feel. For me, that’s where all the good music is. Lizz Wright does a great job.”
Madeleine Peyroux sings Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea. “A talent with taste” says Thielemans, and a good rhythmic feel. She plays excellent rhythm guitar herself, and comes up with some beautiful chords. Madeleine also knows how to explore the space between the sweetest smile and the saddest tear.”
“She is going to become a big star,” Thielemans says, about the Dutch singer Trijntje Oosterhuis, who sings I Wonder What Became of Me. “She deserves international recognition and she will get it. I blow her a kiss for luck!”
The German trumpeter Till Brönner (This Time The Dream’s On Me) has attracted a lot of attention with his album Chattin’ with Chet, a personal homage to Chet Baker. Thielemans – who worked with Baker himself – calls Brönner “a special trumpet player and a remarkable ‘between a smile and a tear’ soloist.”
The choice for I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues fell on Beth Hart, who Thielemans praises as “a real blues shelter”. He goes on to say: “This song demonstrates the real blues potential of Harold Arlen.”
For Stormy Weather, the harmonica virtuoso personally chose Oleta Adams, whom he got to know via Quincy Jones relatives.
Thielemans’ ties with The Netherlands’ most successful ‘ballad diva’, Laura Fygi (It’s Only A Paper Moon), go back many years. He remembers various recording sessions with her, including that for her debut CD, which received a prestigious Dutch Edison Award in 1991.
The Norwegian singer Silje Nergaard interprets Last Night When We Are Young, which Thielemans describes as” harmonically, a very interesting song, with such a beautiful melody.”
And then there is Jamie Cullum, the British boy wonder, whose CD Twentysomething sold in excess of two million copies within a year. On stage, he runs around, dances, screams, sings, and plays piano with his hands and feet. “He plays with me in a real ballad, One For My Baby,” says Thielemans. “He leans towards pop but, for his age, he is certainly well-versed in jazz traditions. And he seems to be a fan of mine. Off the top of his head, he can describe my solos on the Bill Evans LP Affinity. I got to know him during last year’s North Sea Jazz Festival. And he loves hearing my anecdotes from the Fifties about travelling through America in the Birdland bus with Lester Young and Billie Holiday, about the Count Basie Band, the George Shearing Quintet...”
Last, but certainly not least, is the song Over The Rainbow. Toots is very fond of this particular recording, he personally asked for this track to be included as a bonus track on his Harold Arlen album.
In this musical puzzle, all the pieces fit together. There is even a bond with Ruud Jacobs, who produced together with Thielemans many successful Dutch jazz recordings in the Seventies. And arranger Jurre Haanstra is responsible for the music for Baantjer, one of the Netherlands’ most long-running and successful TV detective series, and whose plaintive harmonica opening melody is played by – you guessed it – Toots Thielemans.
The biggest success story on this CD, however, remains the Belgian master himself who, although well into his eighties, is still producing beautiful music, blowing note after note ‘way up high… somewhere over the rainbow’.
Imme Schade van Westrum