#Toots100 (Toots Thielemans Centenary Celebrations in Brussels)

#Toots 100 (Toots Thielemans centenary celebrations – with Vince Mendoza, Kenny Werner, Gregoire Maret, Philip Catherine, Ivan Lins )

(Various venues in Brussels, 29 and 30 April 2022. Report by Sam Norris)

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The Metropole Orkest directed by Vince Mendoza at BOZAR. Phone snap by Molly Mead

Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans (1922-2016) was a jazz musician and composer like no other. Born in the Marolles district of Brussels, ‘Toots’ became known primarily for his original improvisational approach on the harmonica, an instrument with very few exponents in the jazz canon. He brought his unmistakable sound to recordings by the likes of Charlie Parker, Bill Evans and Jaco Pastorius, as well as to dozens of his own albums.  

Toots was also a formidable guitarist, notably as part of the legendary British pianist George Shearing’s quintet from 1953-9, and even an occasional whistler (see his rendition of Wayne Shorter’s Footprints from 1990). He penned compositions ranging from the immortal lilting waltz  Bluesette, to the Latin ballad Lady Fingers, to the score for the 1974 Swedish animated film Dunderklumpen!  This musical versatility, coupled with his quirky, warm personality, enabled Toots to become a household name in Belgium; he cultivated an enormous 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 programme of concerts and exhibitions marking the musician’s centenary year. As part of this I was fortunate to attend two sold-out concerts held on the weekend of the centenay itself, which paid tribute to his music, and also to visit an extensive exhibition about his life and work at the Royal Library of Belgium. These events made up only a fraction of the programme for the celebrations, but they certainly left me feeling- in the words of the Toots 100 exhibition website- that I had ‘learned more about the man behind the legend’.

The Brussels Jazz Orchestra with Gregoire Maret, centre right. Phone snap by Molly Mead

The first gig was in the grand BOZAR concert hall. Roel Vanhoeck, BOZAR’s music programmer, told me beforehand that it was the kind of gig they ‘only let him put on once a year’. When he explained the vast scope of the concert 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 around four times larger. The concert would also showcase renowned special guests, including noted pianist Kenny Werner, Belgian guitarist and Toots collaborator and good friend, London-born Philip Catherine, Toots-influenced harmonica player Gregoire Maret and South African vocalist Tutu Puoane. It was to be a ‘challenging night for the audio engineers’, Vanhoeck smiled.

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’s The Man I Love, gutsily interpreted by vocalist Tutu Puoane. BJO pianist Nathalie Loriers’s arrangement put the colours of the band’s woodwind section (namely bass clarinet and flute) on full display, and featured a suitably winding, serpentine flugelhorn solo. The shuffle swinger Dance for Victor was another high point. Guests Philip Catherine and Gregoire Maret were able to stretch out during a bluesy duo introduction here, Catherine in his typically restrained, lyrical style and Maret with a frenetic virtuosity.  

L-R: Soloists Kenny Werner, Philip Catherine, Gregoire Maret. Photo ©Tom Beetz

This was followed by Jaco Pastorius’ 3 Views Of A Secret, a soulful jazz waltz popularised by Toots during the early 1980s. The BJO’s version featured another energetic Maret solo, this time backed by Pierre Drevet’s richly orchestrated arrangement and some explosive comping from the rhythm section. The final tune of the set was a tender ballad dedicated to Huguette, Toots’ widow, who was in the audience. Toots often said the most important things in his life were music and his wife, and the expressive peaks and troughs of this arrangement reflected his passion for both.

The Metropole Orkest, under the baton of Vince Mendoza, graced the stage for the second half. ‘Toots’ music is about bringing people together’ said Mendoza in his introductory remarks; the audience’s cheers on recognising the most well-known numbers were testament to this. The orchestra used the second half to work through more of Toots’ most recognisable anthems in their signature pops-orchestra style. These included The Dolphin, a relaxed Latin number featuring a fluid, well-integrated solo from pianist Kenny Werner, and Old Friend, a touching tribute by Toots to his father. Maret not only filled the shoes of his idol during this latter piece, but stamped his own musical personality on it.

Puoane’s powerful vocals were once again featured for a swinging version of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile. I was impressed by Dutch drummer Martijn Vink, whose playing lent the band an unerring sense of forward motion throughout the piece. Brazilian actor and vocalist Claudio Lins and his more famous father Ivan Lins then joined the stage for the last few numbers of the evening. Among the best were the classic Bluesette, played in an intimate duo between Werner and Ivan Lins, and a rousing encore of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. Ivan summed up the mood in the room perfectly after this one: ‘we love you, Toots’.

Eve Beuvens. Photo copyright Roger Vantilt, supplied by Brussels Tourism

The second concert, branded as ‘Toots Revisited’, was at Jazz Station, a state-of-the-art jazz venue in the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode district of Brussels, and a focal point for the local scene. The band was a new septet led by Belgian pianist Eve Beuvens; their eclectic set explored Toots tunes as well as original compositions, ranging in style from bebop to funk to exploratory free jazz. The opener, Toots’ uptempo swinger Scotch on the Rocks, featured blazing, boppy solos from altoist Bruno Vansina and baritonist Vincent Brijs. Both saxophonists continued to impress with their virtuosity throughout the gig. Also of note was trumpeter and flugelhornist Thomas Mayade, whose fiery solos (particularly on Toots’ Latin Quarter) spurred the rhythm section on to greater levels of intensity with their comping. Leader Beuvens and drummer Pierre Hurty contributed thoughtful, engaging solos in the second half especially.

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  abundantly clear in his musical output as it is in the dozens of letters on display at the Toots 100 exhibition. Toots’ genius lay in his capacity to draw people in and, crucially, to bring them together, regardless of whether they consider themselves ‘jazz’ fans or not. The exhibition curators, concert programmers and other minds behind Toots 100 are doing a brilliant job of communicating Toots’ legacy.

Sam Norris attended the #Toots100 events as the guest of Brussels Tourism

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