Despite periodic threats to the contrary, I’ve never had the patience to learn an instrument. I can’t read music, and I don’t know the first thing about how to speak the musician’s lingo; as my former producer once told me, “you approach music from a fan’s perspective.”
That perspective is what’s fueled my lifelong orbit around the stuff — as a writer, as a label owner, as a publisher, as a quote-unquote recording artist — but because I try to know my limits, and probably couldn’t tell an A from a G if you pointed a pistol at my head, jazz is one area I’ve always tended to avoid. I review the occasional new record, but nothing too in depth; it’s hard enough to do justice in writing to the stuff I am qualified to write about.
Still, much to my wife’s chagrin, there are a handful of jazz artists whose work moves me on a fundamental level despite my crippling ignorance of form and theory. The wiry tangle of pre- and postmodern guitar that Bill Frisell churns out at blinding speed, for instance, or the deceptively smooth fusion of Mike Stern. The astoundingly accessible innovations of early Brubeck. The soul-shattering beauty of a Stan Getz solo (although, heretic that I am, I prefer not to listen to the Gilberto stuff). And, maybe most of all, the seemingly effortless perfection of Toots Thielemans’ harmonica.
Born in Brussels in 1922, Toots Thielemans actually got something of a late start; it wasn’t until he was in his late 20s that he made his mark — primarily as a guitarist — during stints with Benny Goodman and George Shearing. In time, he became known as the best harmonica player — and first to legitimize it as a serious jazz instrument — since Larry Adler; for quite a few years, though, he was a sideman in the States and a sort of elevated novelty-tune writer in Europe, where he was famous for cutting sides that blended his guitar playing with his whistling. (Thieleman’s whistling skills earned him some American gigs, too — arguably the most notable being the long-running Old Spice commercials that you probably don’t remember because you’re too young, you little shit.)
Along the way, Toots wrote what is probably his most enduring song, “Bluesette”:
During the ’70s and ’80s, Toots reached what can be loosely termed his commercial peak — though he wasn’t overly active as a recording artist in his own right, he surfaced on dozens of recordings by other artists, including Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, and Billy Joel. For Jones, Thielemans proved a crucial element of his classic Smackwater Jack album, as well as 1981’s The Dude, which features the lovely Thielemans solo “Velas” (download)
Thielemans also appeared on Simon’s 1975 Still Crazy After All These Years album, adding to the record’s morose urban vibe with some well-timed cameos, including the gentle coda to “Night Game” (download) — and Billy Joel’s “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” wouldn’t have been the same without Toots. Joel knew it, too — he recorded the “Tender Moment” video live, as an MTV world premiere, and kept the network waiting when Toots was late to the show:
Still, despite his outstanding pedigree as a session musician — and the fact that his career as a solo recording artist didn’t really begin in earnest until the ’80s — it’s Thieleman’s own albums that provide the most persuasive argument for his status as a worldwide icon of the instrument. For the (sometimes literally) unwashed, John Popper represents the apex of the harmonica, but after listening to Popper’s frantic note-spewing side by side with Thielemans’ lyrical playing, anyone with a soul will come away understanding the difference between numb technical proficiency and genius.
For a variety of reasons, it’s difficult to assemble a really definitive Toots Thielemans collection; some of his stuff is out of print, some of it has been badly compiled, some of it’s never been released on CD. But because he didn’t really start releasing albums on a regular basis until relatively recently, you can put together a relatively comprehensive Toots library for a shamefully small amount of money. For instance, he released a trio of albums in the ’90s for Private Music — The Brasil Project, The Brasil Project Vol. 2, and East Coast West Coast — that offer a wealth of wonderfully adventurous music now available at cutout prices. (If it isn’t obvious already, the Brasil records found Toots playing with Brazilian musicians; East Coast West Coast combines jazz players from both coasts.)
Now in his 80s, Toots has reached the part of his career when the honors start accumulating as fast as he can accept them — he is now, for instance, an official Belgian baron, by decree of the king. His most recent album, the Harold Arlen tribute One More for the Road, found him being feted by a succession of special guests, including Oleta Adams and Madeleine Peyroux, and his touring, unfortunately (albeit understandably) has slowed. He looked grandfatherly when he released the classic Man Bites Harmonica in 1958; by now, he’s been around seemingly forever. Unfortunately, he won’t actually be around forever — but he’s released several lifetimes’ worth of wonderful music that will last forever.
The harmonica has pretty much always gotten short shrift in “serious” music, and even in pop music, it’s fallen into disuse; I can’t remember the last time someone released a hit record with harmonica on it. But even if you’ve yet to experience, or consider yourself immune to, the instrument’s charms, do yourself a favor and check out this brief sampling of Toots Thielemans’ wares. You’ll understand what he means when he says he tries to play “in that little space between a smile and a tear.”