Thursday evening at Catalina's, Toots Thielemans was only one chorus into his opening number when a burst of applause made it clear that he had the audience as well as the harmonica in the palm of his hand.
This small stepchild of the instrumental family was only his secondary instrument when the Belgian virtuoso burst into national prominence in the 1950s, mainly playing guitar, with the George Shearing Quintet. He now plays harmonica almost exclusively, bringing to its odd, plaintive sound a blend of technical mastery and spontaneous creation that defies the skeptics.
Along the way there were bent notes, moaning tones, jubilation and anguish as he cruised through the selected works of Kern, Mancini, Ivan Lins and his own brilliant pianist, Fred Hersch. "Sarabande," the title track from Hersch's new album, provided a richly textured vehicle, in 3/4 time, for Thielemans, Hersch and the phenomenal young bassist John Patitucci, who was a tower of power throughout the show.
A quietly sentimental type, Thielemans recited some of the lyrics in French before offering, as a duo number with Hersch, his deeply melancholy treatment of Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas." Some of his raps were all but lost as he spoke in a near-whisper, but somehow the emotion came across.