Toots Thielemans: Captured Alive

In 1974 the Belgian harmonica player brought his singular European jazz sound to a session with Joanne Brackeen, Cecil McBee and Freddie Waits


Harmonica is certainly a rarity in the genre of jazz. It is no exaggeration to say that jazz harmonica begins and ends with Toots Thielemans, and his 1974 album Captured Alive – reissued for the for the first time since the 1970s – is absolutely his finest work.

Diatonic harmonicas, often heard on blues and folk records, are forgiving instruments that can be huffed and puffed quite thoughtlessly; the chromatic harmonica used here by Thielemans demands an exceptional level of technical control and harmonic inventiveness. Captured Alive displays Thielemans as the technical wizard he was, a musician who was able to craft technically impressive and fluid bebop lines as good as any top-notch improviser.

Born in Belgium 1922, Thielemans had a style that retained a clear influence from continental European styles pioneered by Django Reinhardt. His playing is full of tasteful subtleties: scoops, a hint of vibrato and even the occasional growl. Here he is joined by pianist Joanne Brackeen, double bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Freddie Waits. Brackeen is particularly impressive, her background in avant-garde jazz bringing forth subtle splashes of colour that never overpower the rootsy, old-school charm of the record.

The album includes lyrical standards such as Days Of Wine And Roses, I Never Told You, Day Dream and Stella By Starlight, as well as blues-inflected bebop in the form of Sonny Rollins’ Airegin. There are several original compositions by Thielemans and Brackeen in addition to a mightily impressive cover of Coltrane’s Giant Steps. 

If this were just a trio album, it would be a great album. The presence of Thielemans elevates it to a whole other dimension. An essential reissue.

Days Of Wine And Roses; I Never Told You; Dr. Pretty; Airegin; Images; Day Dream; Giant Steps; Snooze; Stella By Starlight; Revol (56.41)
Thielemans (hca); Joanne Brackeen (p); Cecil McBee (b); Freddie Waits (d). USA, 1974.
Candid 708857332427