AOM Logo August 1998

Toots Thielemans : Chez Toots

Windham Hill Records

Michael McClennan

Chez Toots Cover Image

It is rare that an individual becomes synonymous with his art. The name Houdini has come to mean the ability to escape the impossible. Astaire is Hollywood dancing. Certainly, one can not think of jazz harmonica without thinking of Toots Thielemans. With his new CD, Chez Toots, Thielemans shows us why he is a jazz legend in his own time. There is an intrinsic simplicity to Thielemans' music. A beauty that doesn't need a lot of notes to be understood. The selection of French music on this album provides the perfect vehicle for his sense of melody. Somehow, he creates a mood where the listener feels drawn into the music, yet separated by his own imagination - much like an impressionist painting where subtly and suggestion create a whole.

Born in Brussels in 1922, Thielemans and his family fled to France during the Second World War. In 1947, he moved to the United States, where he quickly became a fixture on the jazz scene, playing with such people as Benny Goodman, George Shearing, Charles Parker, Bill Evans, Peggy Lee and Oscar Peterson. Millions of children grew up listening to the harmonica of Toots Thielemans on the Sesame Street theme.

Chez Toots, features seven guest artists: Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves and Chip each perform a song in French, while Johnny Mathis and Shirley Horn elect to sing in English. Danish guitarist, Philip Catherine, contributes an original composition, Dance for Victor, dedicated to the late pianist, Victor Feldman. The tune blends elements of Feldman's style while remaining true to the overall feeling of the album. The great accordionist, Marcel Azzola, is featured on the opening and closing tracks, both recorded live at the Hollywood Savoy Café, Paris.

While there is a perfect balance between vocal and instrumental selections, the vocals seem to provide some of the most memorable moments. No album of French songs would be complete without La Vie En Rose. After a brief piano introduction, Toots states the familiar theme. Enter Diana Krall, who gives the tune a reading that would make Edith Piaf smile. Hymne de L'amour (If You Loved Me), features Chip on vocals and is a welcome introduction to this relatively unknown singer. Johnny Mathis is featured on the Michel Legrand masterpiece, The Windmills of Your Mind. His rendition has an urgency that is breathtaking. Mathis takes on the role of a modern Don Quixote, singing a soliloquy of uncertainty.

Toots' haunting composition, Old Friend, is a definite highlight. With obvious shades of Gounod, the haunting melody seems to soar above a horizon created by Bert van de Brink's piano and Frank Engelen's perfect string accompaniment.

Through the magic of modern recording techniques, Toots and the rhythm section recorded their tracks in Paris while the various guests recorded later in Hollywood. Despite being recorded on two continents, the CD has a remarkable consistency of sound and style. Congratulations to producer Miles Goodman, who unfortunately did not live to see the project's completion. The same rhythm section remains throughout the album, and while only the pianist, Bert van den Brink, is often featured, it is the bass and drums of Hein Van de Geyn and André Ceccarelli that help the music flow smoothly from one track to the next.

I am troubled by one aspect of the recording. Several of the tracks fade out rather than having prepared endings. There is something about the recorded fade that leaves me feeling slightly snubbed, as if there is more music, but I'm not allowed to hear it! Live music rarely fades and I feel recorded music should follow the same rules.

Chez Toots portrays a French mood that is unmistakable. There is a friendliness and a beauty to the album, a mood that draws in the listener and won't let go. Yet, there is a distance to the music; something keeps you from getting too close. To me it suggests looking at a rose behind a pane of glass. Perhaps that's the album's hook? However, the music is perfect and there's nothing left to do but sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy!

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