Jean “Toots” Thielemans, in a rare two-night Gotham concert appearance, opened his program with the well-worn national anthem of jazz, “How High the Moon,” a lick he confessed to having played since his youth in Belgium nearly 60 years ago. Toots is the uncontested jazz master of the harmonica. For over a half-century — he’ll be 82 later this month — he has almost singlehandedly made the harmonica an important voice in the jazz community. While his guitar stood poised at the ready throughout the concert, he never reached for it. It was a pity he chose not to play it, as his self-taught Django-inspired approach is legendary in its own right.
Despite the obvious limitation of the harmonica, Toots is a master of range and rhythmic thoughts, bridging a dancing tempo for “No More Blues” to a serenely cushiony reflection of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” Latter was given a spare and gently supportive single line guitar thought by Oscar Castro-Neves.
With Kenny Werner’s sweeping piano accompaniment, Toots proved to be an ardent romanticist with a tribute to the memory of Frank Sinatra. In a medley of “All the Way” and “My Way,” both Toots and Werner revealed a sense of flavorful nuance and melodic subtlety.
A solo turn by Castro-Neves included the dazzling lyrics for Antonio Carlos Jobim’s lyrical stream-of-consciousness “Waters of March.” Castro-Neves, himself a pioneer in the bossa nova explosion, took the piece at a sprightly dancing pace and defined the song’s poetic imagery.
Toots always plays close to the melody, an approach keenly demonstrated on “Night and Day” and “On Green Dolphin Street,” both of which prefaced “Manha de Carnival.” Luiz Bonfa’s cinema classic, also known as “Morning of the Carnival,” showcased an explosive turn for Airto, a veteran percussionist of astonishing imagination.
A medley of Michel Legrand songs turned out to be a poetically serene nod to the French film composer. With “You Must Believe in Spring” and “I Will Wait for You,” Toots demonstrated uncloying lyricism that was both warm and limpid.
Toots’ own infectious composition “Bluesette” served as a jaunty finale, prior to an homage to Louis Armstrong, whom he met in Brussels before the German occupation. “What a Wonderful World” turned out to be a plaintive encore tribute to Pops.