This past April, the great harmonica player Toots Thielemans turned 90. On September 25, as part of a continuing celebration of that milestone, Thielemans will release a live CD/DVD package with the support of his European quartet: pianist Karel Boehlee, drummer Hans van Oosterhout and double-bass player Hein Van de Geyn. The album, appropriately titled 90 Yrs., is comprised of 11 live tracks recorded over the past five years while the accompanying DVD focuses on his group’s latest concert in Japan.
The album opens with “Waltz for Sonny,” a bow to Sonny Rollins. The next track, “The Dragon,” was written by Thielemans for the Japanese movie Yasha (1985), a nice, open and mysterious tune. Other songs include “Sno’ Peas,” made famous by pianist Bill Evans, with whom Thielemans has played and recorded; “One Note Samba” and “Wave,” both composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim; “In Your Own Sweet Way,” which often served as the opening number when Thielemans played concerts with former boss Dave Brubeck; and “What a Wonderful World,” which Thielemans dedicates to Louis Armstrong—“the greatest jazz musician ever,” according to the harmonica player.
Jean “Toots” Thielemans was born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1922, and three years later he could already play the accordion and had began harmonica as a hobby. Thielemans became hooked on jazz during the German occupation and found his first major influence in guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. His extensive and successful career actually began on guitar, participating in a 1949 Paris jam session alongside the likes of Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet, Miles Davis and Max Roach before joining Benny Goodman on European tours the following year. Throughout his career, Thielemans has played and recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Jaco Pastorius, Peggy Lee, The George Shearing Quintet, Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, The Happenings, Astrud Gilberto and Shirley Horn.
Thielemans also composed the jazz standard “Bluesette,” where he played guitar and whistled in unison. The song was first recorded 50 years ago and became a worldwide hit with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. His playing has been featured on numerous film scores, televisions shows and commercials. In 2001, he was ennobled a baron by King Albert II of Belgium. Thielemans was also honored with the 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship.
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