Toots Thielemans: Soul Station – The Complete Toots Thielemans 1952-1961

A four-CD mixed bag of light music, pops and jazz well displays Toots' unique combination of harmonica, guitar and whistling

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This impressive anthology contains 84 of Thielemans’ early studio recordings, enough to daunt even his most ardent admirers. During some of this period, his skills on harmonica and guitar (and as a whistler) were in their embryonic stages, and he mostly recorded with anonymous combos in Belgium and Holland. His latter-day albums – Images (1974, 1975), Only Trust Your Heart (1988), The Soul Of Toots Thielemans (1959), Affinity made with Bill Evans (1979), Do Not Leave Me (1986) and The Brasil Project (1992,1993) – are among his best. But there is much to admire in this earlier tranche of albums. A detailed review of the eight LPs comprising this set is obviously impossible (if not undesirable). Instead, what follows are brief comments on some of their contents.

Toot’s Quartet features him on harmonica, accompanied by Billy Desmedt on organ and an unnamed drummer. Two old chestnuts – That’s A Plenty, and Darktown Strutters Ball – receive laboured and fairly basic workouts. The same comment applies to the remaining tracks –jazz content nil – with Michigan, a polka, hitting rock bottom. The Sound, also featuring Ray Bryant and Oscar Pettiford, is much better. In particular, On The Alamo, Don’t Be That Way, Sophisticated Lady and Skylark receive inventive interpretations. On all the tracks, Toots on harmonica and/or guitar is lyrical and inventive.

An aptly titled Man Bites Harmonica finds him in the congenial company of his distinguished American colleagues Pepper Adams (listed as Pepper “Adals”) on baritone sax, Wilber Ware on bass, Kenny Drew on piano (not listed in the notes) and Art Taylor on drums. This is an altogether more satisfying album. East Of The Sun and Isn’t It Romantic receive memorable interpretations from Toots, Drew and Adams. Time Out For Toots was one of his best 1950s albums. Although the CD booklet doesn’t supply the information, Urbie Green, and Hank Jones are among his companions on stimulating performances of The Nearness Of You; The Cuckoo In The Clock and Body And Soul. There are also separate appearances (again not listed) by Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Hank Jones, Barry Galbraith and Art Taylor on Clap Yo Hands, Them There Eyes, Early Autumn and You Took Advantage Of Me. There is little to choose between the qualities of all the titles, but Toots is at his rhapsodic best on The Nearness Of You.

Toots considered The Soul Of Toots Thielemans, recorded seven years after his relocation to the United States, “as a sort of graduation degree as the result of my assimilation of American life and the American jazz scene”. Many of the cuts bear out this self-appraisal. In addition to some blues-drenched harmonica (try Soul), he plays some fleet and agile guitar (Lonesome Road and Confirmation), and delivers a whistling solo on Brother John. Also recommended are a sprightly and amusing You Are My Sunshine and a ravishing interpretation of Misty. Ray Bryant, together with his brother Tommy and Oliver Jackson (neither of whom receives credits), provide sympathetic support on all of these titles. Satin Doll (from the album Try a Little Tenderness – Blues Pour Flirter) has the vocal backing of an anonymous group of male singers. Bags Groove cooks from start to finish, as does Honeysuckle Rose – with its whistled introduction.

The aforementioned singers plus syrupy strings add little, if anything, to Isn’t It Romantic (from the album Road To Romance), which is only partly redeemed by Toots’s insouciant breaks. The remaining 11 tracks – soporific ballads with even lachrymose strings – can be safely passed over. Toots – the final album in this compendium – has him (appropriately) whistling the tune of Hi Ho Hi Ho. Summertime has some emphatic and searing “mouth organry”, followed by a whistled Back Bay Shuffle. (Enough with the whistling already?) Unfortunately, Secret Love and Whistle While You Work await the unwary.

A mixed bag, then, not enhanced by incomplete discographies and typographical errors. But a succinct biographical essay by Olivier Julien (“adapted into English by Martin Davies”) and attractive “period” photographs can be commended. The selections could have been more carefully chosen (as they were on the excellent Giants Of Jazz CD Toots Thielemans) but to his devotees I’m probably whistling in the wind.

Discography
CD1: [Toots Quartet] (1) That’s a Plenty; Harmonica Rag; Harmonica Rag; Toot’s Blues; Red Devil Boogie; At The Darktown Strutters Ball; Happy Go Lazy; Michigan; High School Cadets March; [The Sound] (2) On the Alamo; Don’t Be That Way; I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket; Sophisticated Lady; Scotch On The Rocks; I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart; Stars Fell On Alabama; Diga Diga Doo; So Rare; Skylark; Sonny Boy; Cocktails For Two (59.13)
CD2: [Man Bites Harmonica] (3) East Of The Sun; Don’t Blame Me; 18th Century Ballroom; Soul Station; Fundamental Frequency; Strutting With Some Barbecue; Imagination; Isn’t It Romantic; [Time Out For Toots] (4) The Nearness Of You; In A Sentimental Mood; You Took Advantage Of Me; Cool And Easy; Body And Soul; The Cuckoo In The Clock; Tangerine; Early Autumn; Them There Eyes; A Handful Of Stars; Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man; Clap Yo’ Hands (77.13)
CD3: [The Soul Of Toots Thielemans] (5) You Are My Sunshine; Nuages; Five O’Clock Whistle; Soul; Lonesome Road; Misty; Confirmation; Le Enfants S’ennuient Le Dimanche; Brother John; [Try a Little Tenderness – Blues Pour Flirter] (6) Winter In Madrid; Willow Weep For Me; Satin Doll; Bag’s Groove; We’ll Be Together Again; Hot Toddy; Try A Little Tenderness; Talk To Me; Le Trottoir; Honeysuckle Rose; Flirt (77.47)
CD4: [Road To Romance] (7) Isn’t It Romantic; Homesick That’s All; Penthouse Serenade; A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody; This Is Always; Stranger In Paradise; Stairway To The Stars; Love Walked In; Long Ago And Far Away; I Loves You, Porgy; You Stepped Out Of A Dream; You’re Driving Me Crazy; [Toots] (8) Hi Ho-Hi Ho; Summertime; Back Bay Shuffle; Vem Kan Segla Foruton Vind; Secret Love; The Blues And I; Fjarlin Vingad Syns Pa Hago; Delaunay’s Dilemma; The Blacksmith Blues; Blue And Yellow; Carry Me Back To Old Virginia; Whistle While You Work (65.42)

Thielemans (g; harm) on all tracks with:
(1) Incomplete personnel. Belgium, 1952. (2) No personnel given. Holland, 1955. (3) Pepper Adams (bar); Alex Taylor (d); Wilbur Ware (b). USA, 1958. (4) Orchestra. USA, 1958. (5) Ray Bryant and his trio. USA, 1960. (6) Rhythm. France, 1961. (7) Orchestra conducted by Kurt Edelhagen. Germany, 1961. (8) Arne Wilhelmsson, Jilly Wood (b); Anders Berman, Sture Kalin (d); Reinhold Svensson (org); Knud Jorgensen (p). Sweden, 1961.
Frémeaux & Associés FA 812