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Kenny Werner & Toots Thielemans Going Strong

By Published: November 23, 2003
October 13th through the 15th at the legendary Blues Alley, D.C.’s premier jazz supper club, pianist Kenny Werner and harmonica/guitar virtuoso Jean “Toots” Thielemans set up shop.

They dug deep into the jazz musician’s arsenal of standards and tunes of the trade that all players are expected to know, as a frame of reference for everything they do. Churning out classic after classic, they really succeeded in pleasing an audience that wanted to hear tunes it knew. (Note: This is a hard thing to get musicians to do these days as many want only to play their original compositions, which audiences often have not heard and thus have a harder time grasping (often due to the classic jazz player penchant for non-standard chord changes or “out” time signatures)).

The show I caught, their last appearance on Saturday night (in front of a sold out room of eager listeners, mind you), drew predominantly on tunes that appear on their 2002 Verve release as a duo entitled simply Kenny Werner & Toots Thielemans. Needless to say, they went out with a bang.

Though the two come from different generations, they share a passion for standards and improvisatory interpretations of classical works. The spirit moved them from Henry Mancini’s The "Days of Wine and Roses" to Bill Evans’ "Blue in Green" to Miles Davis’ cyclical classic "Solar". Seamlessly fading in and out of songs as if they were pictures at an exhibition or more accurately, movements of a larger symphonic work, they weaved a beautifully lyrical musical journey that gave nods to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Irving Berlin and J.S. Bach.

Thielemans is known worldwide as the premier jazz harmonica player (having introduced the chromatic harmonica to jazz listeners). He is also known as a crowd pleaser. This extends from his appearance in thick black-rimmed tinted glasses (reminiscent of the 1950s) and simple unpretentious dressing, to his knack for being an entertainer who comes to the table with more than monster chops.

Thielemans, like his contemporary Terry Gibbs (who is still as active as Toots), comes from an age when performing music required more than the perfunctory introducing tunes and graciously accepting applause. He brings his playful personality from his years as an accordionist and guitarist, who could joke as he played. It was expected that the musician was a consummate entertainer – breaking the ice between the music and the crowd (the group who often has no idea what is going on musically on stage). He does it to this day with ease.

In his heyday as a guitarist (who later became best known for his harmonica playing and whistling), he played with Benny Goodman in 1950 and was a member of the George Shearing quintet from 1953-59. From then on he has freelanced worldwide biding his time between the US and Europe. International pop star status came after collaborations with producer Quincy Jones and from his playing and whistling of the theme to the popular children’s television show, Sesame Street.

“Normally, playing a show with Toots means that there’s more talking [than I’m normally used to] with my trio, but tonight he had some respiratory problems as well as a little cold, so the commentary was at a minimum” noted Werner. “I think the audience still loved him anyways.”

That they did – especially for his bent notes, glissandos, and occasional riff through the entire range of the harmonica. When he broke out the guitar for the last few numbers, he seemed to be quite puzzled as to why he was getting the wrong pitches until he realized that his clamp was still on the fingerboard, putting him in a key he wasn’t supposed to be in.

“A-ha,” he noted. “There’s my problem.” The audience got a kick out of that.

Werner’s touch is masterful in his ghosted notes and subtle bop-inspired accents. I would place him on the same level as Andre Previn, Michel Camilo, George Shearing and Bill Evans for his style and range of pianistic abilities from classical to pop to Broadway and jazz. A busy clinician and New York sideman, the writer-musician’s latest release is a live date on Half Note Records. His working trio consists of guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira.

His book, Effortless Mastery, discusses the challenges a performing musician must overcome to be successful. The book is sold and marketed as part of the Jamey Aebersold series of jazz education books, most of which teach jazz improvisation to young and developing musicians. Werner also recently released the self described “only Free Jazz play-along on the market.”

“The reason I did it was because it was so different and such a thing did not exist.”

Having seen Werner’s sensibilities in a duo setting, it makes a whole lot of sense that he would create such a book. Both free jazz, and the duo as an institution require listening and more specifically an open and sensitive ear to what is going on around oneself. Werner certainly has a knack for the duo, as does Thielemans, who collaborated earlier in his career with pianist Bill Evans (Thielemans and Werner played a Bill Evans tribute medley at the show which also appears on their CD).

Werner will shortly take up a week-long residency at the Blue Note in New York with Thielemans as guest and featured soloist. Hopefully, Thielemans’ health will be good. But as many of us know, he survived a stroke and at 81 is still playing strong.

So here’s a hearty “Long live Toots! (and of course Kenny too).”



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