It doesn't take more than five fingers to count the number of jazz artists who have had much success playing the harmonica. And few would argue that Toots Thielemans' name should be at the top of that very small grouping.
If you've heard the wistful sound of a harmonica in a film soundtrack you've probably heard Thielemans in action--think of "Midnight Cowboy" or "The Sugarland Express." Add to that recordings with the likes of Billy Joel and Paul Simon; music for "Sesame Street"; his jazz evergreen original, "Bluesette" (a piece he refers to as his "Social Security fund"); and dozens upon dozens of first-rate jazz outings, and a clear picture of Thielemans' creative eclecticism emerges.
On Tuesday at the Catalina Bar & Grill, he opened a weeklong run with a warm, relaxed and genial set. Thielemans, also known as an expressive jazz guitarist--who often enlivened his improvised guitar lines with unison whistling--doesn't quite have the technical diversity of his younger years (he turns 79 in April). In addition, although he has had a remarkable recovery, his dexterity is still affected by the consequences of a major stroke, suffered in 1981, which affected his left side. He referred to it, in fact, when he picked up his guitar for a pair of closing numbers (including "Bluesette").
But musical invention and stylistic good taste are elements that are defined by spirit and soul, not fast fingers. And the fact that Thielemans played relatively brief solos--on harmonica, as well as guitar--in no way diminished the quality of what he had to offer.
Typically, his program was filled with quality material--Henry Mancini's "The Days of Wine and Roses," Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma," Wayne Shorter's "Foot-prints," Ivan Lins' "Comecar de Novo" ("The Island")--all of it rendered with an exquisite melodic touch. And when he offered a brief but poignant reading of "I Wish You Love" in tribute to Charles Trenet, who died Sunday, the full-house crowd held its collective breath as Thielemans unfolded the song's soaring melody.
Pianist Kenny Werner, who works frequently with Thielemans, provided extraordinarily simpatico support, interspersing the almost symbiotic interaction with brisk, imaginative, hard-swinging solos of his own. Bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera, as they always do, defined what creative, invigorating rhythm-section playing is all about.
* The Toots Thielemans Quartet featuring Kenny Werner at the Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd. Tonight at 8:30 and 10:30, $18 cover. Friday at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., $20 cover. Saturday at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m., $22 cover. Two-drink minimum. (323) 466-2210.