#Toots 100 (Toots Thielemans Centenary Celebrations – featuring Vince Mendoza, Kenny Werner, Gregoire Maret, Philip Catherine, Ivan Lins)
(Various locations in Brussels, 29 and 30 April 2022. Reporting by Sam Norris)
Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans (1922-2016) was a jazz musician and composer like no other. Born in the Marolles district of Brussels, ‘Toots’ has become known above all for his original approach to improvisation on the harmonica, an instrument with very few exponents in the jazz canon. He has brought his unmistakable sound to recordings by Charlie Parker, Bill Evans and Jaco Pastorius, as well as dozens of his own albums.
Toots was also a formidable guitarist, notably in legendary British pianist George Shearing’s quintet from 1953 to 1959, and even an occasional whistler (see his rendition of Wayne Shorter’s Footprints from 1990). He wrote compositions ranging from the immortal waltz bluesetteto the latin ballad woman fingers, to the score of the 1974 Swedish animated film Dunderklumpen! This musical versatility, coupled with his quirky and warm personality, has allowed Toots to become a household name in Belgium; he cultivated a huge fan base during his lifetime and was made a baron by King Albert II in 2001.
His remarkable achievements are currently being celebrated in Brussels by Toots 100, an ongoing program of concerts and exhibitions marking the musician’s centenary year. In this context, I had the chance to attend two sold-out concerts organized on the centenary weekend itself, which paid homage to his music, and also to visit an extensive exhibition on his life and work. at the Royal Library of Belgium. These events were only a fraction of the celebrations program, but they certainly left me feeling – in the words of the Toots 100 exhibition website – that I had “to know more about the man behind the legend”.
The first concert took place in the large concert hall of BOZAR. Roel Vanhoeck, BOZAR’s music programmer, told me beforehand that this was the kind of concert they “only let him perform once a year”. When he explained the vast scope of the gig, it was easy to see why; the first half was to feature the 20-piece Brussels Jazz Orchestra (BJO), and the second was to be performed by the Dutch Metropole Orkest, which is about four times larger. The concert would also feature high-profile special guests, including famed pianist Kenny WernerBelgian guitarist and collaborator and good friend of Toots, born in London Phillip Catherineharmonica player influenced by Toots Gregoire Maret and South African singer Tutu Pouane. It must have been a “difficult evening for sound engineers”, smiles Vanhoeck.
The BJO performed a series of well-crafted arrangements of Toots classics in the first half. Among the highlights was a lush rendition of Gershwin The man I love, interpreted with courage by the singer Tutu Puoane. Pianist BJO Nathalie LoriersThe arrangement showcased the colors of the band’s woodwind section (namely bass clarinet and flute) and featured a suitably meandering serpentine flugelhorn solo. Another highlight was the swinger Dance for Victor shuffle. Guests Philip Catherine and Grégoire Maret were able to stretch out during a bluesy duet introduction, Catherine in her lyrical, restrained style and Maret with frenetic virtuosity.
This was followed by Jaco Pastorius’ 3 views of a secreta soulful jazz waltz popularized by Toots in the early 1980s. The BJO’s version featured another energetic solo by Maret, this time backed by Pierre Drévetof the richly orchestrated arrangement and the explosive compositions of the rhythm section. The last tune of the set was a tender ballad dedicated to Huguette, Toots’ widow, who was in the audience. Toots often said that the most important things in his life were music and his wife, and the expressive ups and downs of this arrangement reflected his passion for both.
The Metropole Orkest, conducted by Vince Mendoza, graced the stage for the second half. “Toots’ music is about bringing people together,” Mendoza said in his opening remarks; the cheers of the public at the recognition of the most famous numbers testify to this. The orchestra used the second half to work on many of Toots’ most recognizable anthems in their signature pop orchestral style. These included The Dolphin, a laid-back Latin number with a smooth, well-integrated solo from pianist Kenny Werner, and Old friend, a touching tribute from Toots to his father. Maret not only filled his idol’s shoes during this final piece, but imprinted his own musical personality on them.
Puoane’s powerful voice was featured again for a swing version of Charlie Chaplin Smile. I had been warned that Belgium had a lot of good batsmen, and I was duly impressed with the batsman Martin Vink, whose playing gave the band an unerring sense of forward movement throughout the piece. Brazilian actor and singer Claudio Lins and his more famous father Ivan Lins then joins the stage for the last numbers of the evening. Among the best were the classics bluesetteplayed in an intimate duet between Werner and Ivan Lins, and a lively encore of Louis Armstrong what a wonderful World. Ivan summed up the mood of the room perfectly after this one: “we love you, Toots.”
The second concert, dubbed ‘Toots Revisited’, took place at Jazz Station, a state-of-the-art jazz venue in the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode district of Brussels and a focal point of the local scene. The group was a new septet led by the Belgian pianist Eve Bevens; their eclectic set explored Toots tunes as well as original compositions, ranging from bebop to funk to exploratory free jazz. The opening, Scotch on the Rocks, Toots’ uptempo swinger, featured flamboyant, boppy solos from the viola player Bruno Vansina and baritone Vincent Brijs. The two saxophonists continued to impress with their virtuosity throughout the concert. Also note the trumpeter and the flugelhorn Thomas Mayadeincluding fiery solos (especially on Toots’ Latin Quarter) pushed the rhythm section to higher levels of intensity with their songwriting. Chef Beuvens and drummer Pierre Hurty contributed thoughtful and engaging solos in the second half in particular.
This opportunity to attend the centenary celebrations left me with a real sense of the man and his reasons for making music. His generosity of spirit is as evident in his musical production as in the dozens of letters on display at the Toots 100 exhibition. Toots’ genius lies in his ability to attract people and, above all, to bring them together, whether or not they consider themselves “jazz” fans. The curators, concert programmers and other minds behind Toots 100 do a brilliant job of communicating Toots’ legacy.
Sam Norris participated in #Toots100 events as a guest of Brussels Tourism