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Thielemans Ensemble Shows Joy of Musical Interactivity

May 16, 1997|DON HECKMAN

Jazz began as a collective music--a communal act of creation in which ensemble improvisation was the core of the performance. All that changed when Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and others brought the soloist to the foreground, sometimes at the expense of the ensemble sound.

But, although the improvised jazz solo continues to be the primary standard of measurement, many of the most compelling moments in jazz performances are those in which the interactivity between the players pulls the audience into the pleasures of the act of making music.

Toots Thielemans' appearance at the Jazz Bakery Wednesday night was a perfect example. Working with pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Billy Hart, the Belgian guitarist/harmonica virtuoso, who turned 75 last month, played a set that had the rich convivial feeling of an evening among old friends. Although there were occasional stumbles in the obviously little-rehearsed performance, each misstep was dealt with via playful looks and jocular comments between the musicians.

For the moderate-sized but intensely involved crowd, the sporadic blunders--which clearly had nothing to do with the abilities of these accomplished musicians--added bits of levity that simply heightened the impact of the balance of the music.

Thielemans' harmonica playing is, of course, one of the wonders of jazz. Beginning with a Gershwin medley, he moved through a well-chosen set that included Henry Mancini's "Days of Wine and Roses," Ivan Lins' "The Island" and Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." The harmonica sound was ravishing, and Thielemans supplemented his trademark bebop lines with some surprisingly avant-garde-sounding flourishes.

In the few moments when he picked up his guitar, he reminded us that--despite his prominence on the harmonica--he remains a world-class jazz guitarist. The only element missing from his otherwise impressive performance was his usual solo segment in which he employs his unusual technique of whistling along with his guitar lines.

Werner's piano provided solid backing, and his string synthesizer--played with a remarkably orchestral quality--brought texture and density to the slower numbers. Drummond added several blues-drenched, emotionally driven solos, and Hart's drumming was animated by an energetically propulsive drive.

* The Toots Thielemans Quartet, through Sunday at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 271-9039. 8:30 tonight, 8:30 and 10:15 p.m. Saturday, 4 and 8 p.m. Sunday. $18-$22.

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