Harmonica Great Thielemans Coming to Hollywood Bowl

Zan Stewart writes regularly about music for The Times.

Think about it.

How many unique voices, the kind you recognize in an instant, are there? In any field? It's not a list that goes on for pages.

In acting, you could name Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, John Gielgud; in classical music you'd consider Jessye Norman, Luciano Pavarotti, Itzhak Perlman.

In jazz, the distinctive, one-of-a-kind sounds have belonged to such artists as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Toots Thielemans.

Of these, Thielemans, the Belgian harmonica player and guitarist, is surely the least-known to the general public, despite his having written the jazz standard, "Bluesette," which has been recorded by more than 100 artists, and having performed on the soundtracks of such films as "Midnight Cowboy" and "The Getaway." Still, his alternately ebullient and mournful harmonica tones have long been drawing praises from musicians.

"He's a true poet of melody," said guitarist Pat Metheny, who featured Thielemans on his just-released "Secret Story" Geffen Records album.

Thielemans appears Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl in a Brazilian-based program that spotlights a rare Southern California appearance by another one-of-a-kind, the great Antonio Carlos Jobim. But if Thielemans is so revered by his peers, why hasn't he caught on with larger audiences?

"I'm not a great businessman," he said somewhat sheepishly during a recent conversation from his home in Manhattan. (He also owns homes in Montauk, Long Island, and Brussels.) "I don't have the dollar sign written all over me. Like I have never been very lucky with recording under my own name in terms of connecting with sales, though I would have liked to. Some people say I should be more aggressive, like if I got more press, maybe I'd get more fame. But, hey, I'm not crying the blues," he said with a chuckle.

If widespread recognition has eluded him, artistic achievement has not. Thielemans, 70, who played with George Shearing from 1953 to 1959, recorded his classic "Bluesette," on which he played guitar and whistled, in 1961. He later went on to record with such aces as Quincy Jones and Bill Evans, with whom he collaborated on the acclaimed Warner Bros. album "Affinity." Bach's definition of genius--5% inspiration, 95% perspiration--applies to whatever he's attained.

"You receive the gift of music, or writing or painting, and it includes the desire to be the best you can be. So you practice, learn, try to stay on top of the game," he said, speaking as softly as he plays one of his lulling ballads. "I'm always trying to take the top a little higher. I never give up."

Even a giant such as John Coltrane at the peak of his fame occasionally played to small audiences. Likewise, there have been a couple of periods in Thielemans' career when it has been quite slow: He got by through working in the commercial jingle field and on the casual party circuit. This current period, he's glad to report, isn't one of those.

Besides Metheny's new album, the harmonica player took part in a recent Shirley Horn Polygram album, "You Won't Forget Me," and then had Horn's trio back him on "For My Lady," also on Polygram. Later this week, Private Music releases his latest album, "The Brasil Project."

The collection finds such Brazilian notables as Ivan Lins, who will also be on the Bowl program, Djavan, Milton Nascimento and Oscar Castro-Neves playing familiar and arcane Brazilian material, all except "Bluesette."

The album, which was recorded in Los Angeles, New York and Rio de Janeiro, also includes performances by such American jazz players as Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin and Mike Lang. With all these leading musicians and artists, "I am somehow the centerpiece of the record," Thielemans said with a laugh.

But he quickly acknowledged that his mental makeup, which he defines as being "between a smile and a tear," is perfectly suited to the sentimentality that often pervades Brazilian popular music.

"It's full of minor-seventh chords," he said. "Look at a tune like 'One Note Samba.' It's supposed to be happy, but it isn't.

"Sometimes I play a pretty ballad, and I almost cry myself," he continued. "That's my nature. Where do you think the blues, or ballads, the good songs, come from? They didn't come out of a belly laugh"--and here he paused to laugh himself--"or a military salute."

Asked if he were a melancholic, Thielemans hedged. "Well, maybe," he said. "But I'm easily happy. A little attention can go a long way, or a small neglect can hurt you. I'm fragile, maybe."

Describing his musical style as "a be-bopper rolled in with the influences of the '50s and '60s," Thielemans said he needs to play music. "I always have my harmonica with me or my guitar close at hand," he said. "I practice a lot, though not scales per se. I revise tunes, look for different ways to approach them. I like playing with a group, where it's almost like tennis: The pianist throws a chord, and you have to respond."

Thielemans said that his life today is good, and that he plans to keep "his ears and goose bumps at the ready.

"I'm trying to be mature, which is being true to yourself. Why do people become frustrated? They're afraid to follow their impulses, their goose bumps."

Asked what gives him goose bumps, Thielemans replied, "Oh, Ray Charles reading the phone book."

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