The name Toots Thielemans is synonymous with jazz harmonica. This is true partly because there are so few practitioners but mostly because of the degree to which he has mastered the instrument. If you have never heard Toots before you may wonder how he does it. It is difficult to imagine jazz harmonica, the instrument not seeming to lend itself to jazz. Until you hear Toots, that is. When he puts the harmonica to his lips, it's magic. He has a deep respect for the music that comes across in his playing. The jazz vocabulary seems second nature to him. Between songs he gave thanks to the African-American experience for its deep influence in his life.
On this night the warmth of the sunny, spring Milwaukee evening seemed to carry over to the music. Casually strolling to the stage, the musicians created a very intimate atmosphere. Interacting with the other musicians, Toots showed how much he enjoys what he does. The supporting cast was very pleasing. Kenny Werner played acoustic piano and electric keyboard, often merging the two sounds simultaneously for a unique soundscape. He was a joy to listen to, especially when he soloed. Ray Drummond was superb on the bass, although I would have like to hear more solos. Billy Hart, on drums, played with precision and passion but again, like Ray, should have taken more solos. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. This night was Toots' and because he is so wonderfully unique I enjoyed every minute of it.
The set list was appealing, mixing standard with more unique jazz fare. The former included In Your Own Sweet Way, which was a beautiful tune to open the first set, and I Loves You Porgy and Summertime, which opened the second set. The more unique variety consisted of several tantalizing Brazilian numbers. Toots closed the evening by showcasing his abilities on guitar, which was his primary instrument until a stroke restricted the movement of his left hand. His jazz personality comes across well on guitar and he sounded great, especially on his signature Bluesette. The fact that his mastery of the harmonica was due, in part, to a near tragedy demonstrates the strength of the human spirit to overcome adversity. Toots is an inspiration to us all.