listening booth: toots thielemans, “one more for the road”


Toots Thielemans – One More for the Road (2006)
purchase this album (Amazon)


Toots Thielemans - One More for the Road

In 1984, at what was probably the absolute peak of his popularity, Billy Joel and MTV decided to premiere the video for “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” as it was being recorded, live, in front of a concert audience. The presence of Toots Thielemans, whose legendary harmonica graced the studio version of the song, was arranged, but because of some travel snafu or other (I was ten years old at the time and I don’t remember the exact details — cut me some friggin’ slack already), his arrival was delayed. With a TV network and untold viewers waiting, Joel did what any sensible person would do: He refused to start filming. I’m not sure how long he made everyone wait, but eventually Toots arrived, and it was on with the show.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with One More for the Road, but it’s indicative of the kind of respect Thielemans has long commanded among fellow musicians, even if most consumers don’t know who he is. He’s appeared on countless recordings, is basically responsible for the introduction of the chromatic harmonica, and was even made a baron by the king of Belgium. Clearly, if you’ve never heard of Toots, you are the one to blame, and you need to go out right now and buy some Toots CDs.

Just don’t start with this one.

It isn’t Toots’ fault, naturally; I’m convinced he’s literally incapable of turning in a subpar performance. His harmonica lifts the same beautiful, mournful weight on this album that it always does. And the two ideas behind One More — that songwriter Harold Arlen deserves to be canonized, and that Thielemans deserves the kind of all-star duets release that always spells a sales spike for greybeard artists — are noble enough. They even settled on a decent blend of trendy/sensible artists for Toots’ duet partners, including Jamie Cullum, Madeleine Peyroux, Beth Hart, and Oleta Adams. The main problem with this album is that there isn’t enough Toots. All of the singers acquit themselves well enough (although Adams’ take on “Stormy Weather” borders on parody), but they can’t hold a candle to the master’s dulcet tones.

Sounds like hyperbole, but it isn’t — contrast Silje Nergaard’s pleasant-but-colorless vocals on “Last Night When We Were Young” (download) with the depth of feeling Thielemans brings, solo, to “Over the Rainbow” (download). No contest. In the end, this is a spiritual cousin to Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company — a made-for-the-masses collection that rarely does much more than hint at why its subject deserves the attention.

If it gets people buying Toots Thielemans albums, naturally, it’s well worth it, and either way, this isn’t a bad album. But if you enjoy it — shit, even if you don’t — you’d do well to seek out his other releases.