While Toots Thielemans wasn't the first star on harmonica, he easily became the best-known virtuoso on his instrument by the 1960s. He gave up whistling and the guitar due to health issues, though they haven't slowed his creative powers as he approaches his 90th year.
This set is comprised of two discs, the first of which is a CD compilation of live tracks recorded over several tours between 2006 and 2011, with his European Quartet, consisting of Karel Boehlee (on piano and synthesizer), bassist Hein Van de Geyn, and drummer Hans van Oosterhaut. Like his American accompanist Kenny Werner, Boehlee is a sensitive accompanist who uses the synthesizer sparingly for backgrounds and leaves Thielemans plenty of blowing space. Many of the songs will be familiar to Thielemans' fans. He played both Phil Markowitz's "Sno' Peas" and Paul Simon's "I Do It for Your Love" on a late-'70s record date with Bill Evans, both of which remain fresh with Thielemans' interpretations decades later. The buoyant treatment of Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" features some of Thielemans' wildest improvising, with lots of sudden twists. Thielemans has long been a fan of Brazilian music and it is well represented with compelling takes of "Wave," "One Note Samba," and "The Dolphin." Also not to be missed is his slow, melancholy "The Dragon." [The bonus disc is a DVD of 2011 live performances, evidently taped in Japanese concert halls and clubs. Thielemans and his band are in a playful mood in these short, effective renditions of six numbers, which include his signature composition "Bluesette" an amusing "Autumn Leaves" (in which he is well supported by Van de Geyn), along with Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas," a terrific feature for van Oosterhout. Strangely, the footage is interspersed with shots of Japanese fans in the lobby, street scenes (including a few from New York City), and Thielemans and his group backstage and in a studio, though the music is never interrupted by extraneous audio. Still, the non-musical video should have been omitted entirely or at least edited into the gaps between songs.] ~ Ken Dryden