With Yesterday & Today, fans of the remarkable Toots Thielemans will enjoy a rare treat. The double album is packed with rarities and all sorts of coveted goodies, from Thielemans’ earliest performances to a record-closing duet that puts the 89-year-old alongside keyboardist Kenny Werner for a little magic.
Now known mostly as one hell of a harmonica player and a whistler, the Belgian jazz legend is also an incredible guitarist. This collection displays the multiple prongs of his work, from early recordings from 1946 to jams in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond.
The fun opens with “Jazz Band Ball,” a big band number that was recorded in February of 1946 in Brussels. It features the likes of Oscar Toussaint (alto saxophone), Robert De Kers (tenor saxophone) and Jackie Tunis (drums) in a fiery outfit. Thielemans, just 23 at the time of the recording, fits nicely in what is a relatively simple jaunt.
As the first disc of Yesterday & Today continues along its merry way, business picks up with “Nalen Boogie.” The song is more complex and the tempo is quicker, but Thielemans is hanging in – and then some – with the unique outfit of Reinhold Svensson (organ), Sven Stiberg (banjo), Thore Jederby (bass), and Anders Burman (drums).
The first disc carries right along through the 1950s, illustrating Thielemans’ great harmonica work alongside pianist Hank Jones (“Cool and Easy”), and 1960s. The title track factors in with a lush arrangement by Jack Andrews and an orchestra that includes Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar) and George Duvivier (bass).
The second disc kicks in and the tempo is jazzed up considerably with a lively Quincy Jones-conducted trip (“Chump Change”). The song is actually the theme to a Netherlands-based sports radio programme, but the version presented on Yesterday & Today is longer and lets the listener dig in to Thielemans’ solo work in the latter half.
Among the other treasures on the second disc is “Black Beauty,” a solo piece recorded in 1976 for a Dutch radio show. The number really displays Thielemans’ proficiency plucking the strings, beautifully shifting tempos and tones without fuss. The song is barely over the two-minute mark, but the intimacy is reason alone to hit the repeat button.
Yesterday & Today closes off another intimate note with “What a Wonderful World,” the piece that Thielemans generally closes his concerts with. Werner’s synth work is beautiful and Thielemans’ harmonica soars elegantly, presenting a piece of music that fades tenderly out of view but never out of memory.
Fans of Toots Thielemans will adore every moment of Yesterday & Today, but the album could certainly make some new fans too. His playing is never fussy, never showy and never off-target. He is truly one of the most “on” musicians one can come across and this lovely compilation proves the point in divine style.