Monday, January 30, 2017

Oscar Alemán And The Blues

Original sheet music (1914)
It has been said that Oscar Alemán never was a 'blues man',  implying that his concept of jazz did not include the Afro-American music genre known as 'blues', an important source in the original versions of jazz rooted in New Orleans' music culture and practice. However, the statement should be modified, if 'the blues' is not just the musical style that originated in the Southern states of USA around 1900 and was performed by amateurs and local pick-up ensemples at social events in mainly black Afro-American societies long before the music spread to other parts of the country via radio networks and 'race' records. 
W.C. Handy
Innovative tunesmiths and music publishers like W.C. Handy (1873-1958), known as 'father of the blues', were soon aware of the commercial opportunities of the blues and took advantage of the music by publishing their own versions of blues as sheet music which became popular hits with the public even before WW 1. W.C. Handy's Saint Louis Blues (published 1914) was among his most popular songs and was quickly adopted by the mainstream music business as an example of the original version of the blues style. Countless musicians and jazz bands have since incorporated Saint Louis Blues in their repertoire and the tune is a fundamental part of the jazz standard book, still performed today by traditional jazz orchestras. 
Alemán performing St. Louis Blues
It is from the tradition paved by W.C. Handy Aleman´s concept of the blues  originates, I think. Fact is that the mentioned Saint Louis Blues was a part of Alemán's repertoire throughout his career in Argentina from 1940 and on. Already at one of his first public performances after his return to Argentina from Europe, Saint Louis Blues is presented and elaborated as a great vehicle for his improvisational skills both as a musician and entertainer. Luckily, a test recording from this live performance October 14, 1941 at Teatro Casino in Buenos Aires has been saved and documents Alemán's rousing and roof raising version of Saint Louis Blues as a solo piece of improvised music for guitar, vocal and stomping feet! 

Alemán recorded Saint Louis Blues commercially twice, the first version was recorded by Odeon January 30 1953 featuring Alemán's Orquesta de Jazz (mx 18802, Odeon 55613 and LDS119). The tune is here a great vehicle for his improvisational skills as a guitar player in the applied solos.

The next time Alemán recorded Saint Louis Blues was in May 1973 at the session for the Redondel label with Jorge Anders' orchestra issued on Redondel SL-10511. This version has also been uploaded at YouTube and is inserted below

Alemán composed and recorded two tunes which were titled Oscar Blues No. 1 and Oscar Blues No. 3, both recorded for Redondel - the first mentioned on Redondel L-809 made September 1974, the other was issued on the Alemán '72 LP (Redondel, SL 10.508) recorded Sept.-Oct. 1972. Both tunes are solo pieces for guitar, here is Oscar Blues No. 3 inserted below

Collectors of Alemán's output may have wondered, if there also exists a tune titled Oscar Blues No. 2 although never recorded officially. I don't have the answer to that question, but instead I like to point to a saved untitled home-recording from c. 1971 in much the same style and mood as the two known pieces titled Oscar Blues. Thus, below is inserted a possible Oscar Blues No. 2 to end this


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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Jean Babtiste “Toots” Thielemans (1922 – 2016) - # 2

Georg Lankester gives his account of the career of Toots Thielemans. The article is in two parts, first part is accessible here,  below follows the second part.

Toots Thielemans, the genius on the harmonica  - Part 2

Toots and his harmonica
Studio activities

Because he could join the studio group of ABC-Television, this generated more money than the preceeding years playing all the time. His creativity soon showed out and in the film “Midnight Cowboy” – made in 1969 – his background improvisations can be heard till the end.

From about 1970 Thielemans divided his time between studio activities and playing Jazz. However, in those years he also performed with well-known singers out of the world of entertainment such as Peggy Lee, Quincy Jones, Bill Evans, but also Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon – and not to forget: Jazz piano player Herbie Hancock.

 In 1972 Jean even made a tour in Russia. In the same year he composed music for the movie “The Getaway” and in ’75 he performed with Oscar Peterson in Montreux so that he can be reckoned to the best Jazzmen of that time. And….his versality enabled him to give lessons at the “Eastman School of Music”, At this famous American Institute for Music in New Yersey one can study Classical music as well as Jazz.

Still maintaining his independancy in the Eighties, he can often be found in European countries where he performed e.g. with the Swedish lady singer Sylvia Vrethammer.
Toots and Sivuca outside Chiko's Bar, Brazil
Amazing is that Jean also travelled to Brazil where he played with the legendary and world famous accordionist Sivuca a.o.. “Toots”  showed great affinity to the ‘bossa nova’ and liked to make long improvisations on its typical rhythm and the beautiful diminished chords. Yet he found also time to jam with Jazz musicians overthere.

A beloved musician  

Toots in high spirits with his beloved instrument
He also often visited Sweden, as known, a jazz-minded country. When he gave concerts, he used to  speak to the audience in the Swedish language which made him highly popular. In a Belgian documentary one can feel the atmosphere he creates when announcing and performing. But he always had contact with his listeners, wherever he gave his concerts.

He whistles, plays guitar and harmonica in a unparalleled way, performs with Shirley Horn, made ‘jingles’  and tunes for TV commercials. Moreover he composes and takes care of the music for the highly popular children series “Sesam Street”.

The most astonishing in all  those activities is that he never choose an easy way in bringing his music. He was not afraid to play the most difficult melodic lines. Moreover his playing, very much based on the bebop,mainly inspired by John Coltrane, is also easy accessible to the modern electronic way of listening to music.

To end this survey on the career of “Toots” Thielemans, l’ll insert a video showcasting a lengthy live performance by this great artist. The video was recorded at the Hague Jazz Festival in 2010 and features “Toots” Thielemans’ Quartet – enjoy!

Georg Lankester

With thanks to Eddy Determeijer and Jef Van Gool for their photos
Any additional info  is most welcome, contact me at

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Jean Babtiste “Toots” Thielemans (1922 – 2016) - # 1

Georg Lankester gives his account of the career of Toots Thielemans. The article is in two parts, below follows the first part, the second is accessible here.

An exceptional Jazz musician and a genius on the harmonica  - Part 1

Toots Thielemans
On August 22nd 2016 this famous Belgian artist passed away at the advanced age of 94 years. With his decease the Jazz world looses a great musician and a sympathic human being. By all means a reason  to memorize his long career with plenty of  highlights.

Jean took the nickname “Toots”over from saxophonist Nunzio Toots Mondello and trumpet player Tutti Toots Carmalita. Only the harmonica virtuoso, however, would spread this nickname all over the world, no doubt about it.

An early musical start 

Jean Babtiste Thielemans was born on April 29, 1922 in Brussels and already began to play accordion when he was three years old. He used a simple homemade instrument which was replaced by a genuine accordion a few years later. It was only in 1939 that he switched to the harmonica !

At that time Jean studied mathematics, but he spent more and more time playing on his new instrument which attracted him strongly.

However, he also took interest in the guitar after having heard Django Reinhardt playing with the ‘Hot Club quintet’. After the Liberation he also bought a guitar and listening to other guitar players, he exercised day after day until he could reproduce a solo of the American player Al Casey note by note. “Toots” did so in order to break away from the gypsy style. By the way: Casey’s guitar solo can be found on an Esquire record called “All American Jazz  Concert”.

Longing for America 

Just after World War II Jean is playing for American soldiers in Belgium and in some surrounding countries. In 1947 he visits the USA where, in New York, he is soon joining Jazz musicians in the 52nd Street. That’s the place where he discovers the new bebop style and also becomes friends with Charlie Parker. Later, in 1949, they  won (together) a prize during the International Jazz Festival of Paris.
Benny Goodman and Toots switched instruments for the photo
Not long afterwards he was engaged by Benny Goodman, ‘The King of Swing’ with whom he made a tour through Europe in ‘50/51, an interesting experience.

Early 1951”Toots”- for a short time - also joined the orchestra featuring the popular Belgian artist Bobbejaan Schoepen. Later that year he emigrated to the States and settled in New York. With lack of a musicians’ license he played for fun, taking part in the so-called “Birdland Sessions” where he met many other bebop players.
George Shearing and Toots
Quite soon he was engaged by Dinah Washington and several months later asked to join the quartet of piano player George Shearing, which shows his musical versality. In a Begian documentary “Toots” told that he there had to work hard and earned very little. Every month he sent some money to his wife in NY; only after one year saving they could afford to make a trip to Belgium.

A surprising composition 

At the beginning of the Sixties Jean formed his own group and made several tours in Europa. He setlled for a short time in Sandinavia where he played together with violinist Svend  Asmussen  and bass player Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. His friendship with Asmussen would always remain.
Printed music of Bluesette (click to enlarge)
And then in 1962 he composed and recorded “Bluesette”, as he said, a combination of Blues and Musette. Of this composition more than 100 different versions were recorded and it made him instantly a star. - Here is the original recording from 1962

Blowing the harmonica, whistling while playing guitar, he surprised people all over the world. “Toots” remembered that once playing this song with Stéphane Grappelli, the latter was excited about the theme and improvised on it with enthousiasm and in the right style.

Due to this success “Toots” was re-discovered in the US and soon back there performing as an independant musician with more and more interest in creating new kinds of music.

To be continued

Georg Lankester

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