BELGIUM: Man Bites Harmonica - Toots Thielemans
Updated: Jan 20
The Belgian Jazz star proves that the harmonica is more than just a toy, it's an instrument to be taken seriously
Where to begin when discussing the humble harmonica? Often seen as the butt of a joke within the world of musical instruments due to its toy-like appearance and the fact that even the average five-year-old can play it, albeit without sounding particularly tuneful; the person who brings a harmonica to the party is hated almost as much as the one who brings the ukulele, were it not for the harmonica’s novelty value. As the smallest instrument, even smaller than the piccolo, the harmonica for many years has been seen as an appendage to an otherwise great musical performance using piano/guitar/vocals etc. One just needs to take a look at the vast selection of well-known tracks by the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and various other blues artists to hear a short cameo by the harmonica before the song gets interesting. However, to its credit there are a handful of popular songs where a harmonica solo takes centre-stage and elevates the tune to another level; most notably Cryin’ by Aerosmith, Piano Man by Billy Joel and Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder.
“Toots, like many jazz musicians of his time, was an entertainer, and if I can guarantee something this album will not leave you short-changed on entertainment.”
Listening to the harmonica in the last of these tracks by, as far as I am concerned, the greatest musical artist of all time for some reason always brings a little tear to my eye. Last summer, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tick off something from my bucket-list, as I was able to see Stevie Wonder live at his “Song Party” Tour in London’s Hyde Park. As I was mostly sober at the concert, even though I felt far from it as I could not avoid Stevie’s metaphorical attempt to dose me with a big hit of ecstasy, I am able to recall a distinctive memory of turning to my friend Alex during Isn’t She Lovely and exclaiming to him ‘Why don’t we hear the harmonica more often? Its f***ing beautiful!!” The purity with which he sings about his unadulterated love for his new-born daughter before culminating into the stunning melody of his harmonica solo always allows a unique feeling to coarse through my veins every time I hear it. The joy, gratitude and love I feel towards the beauty (or as Stevie puts it ‘loveliness’) of the important women that I have in my life, be it ex-partners, friends or family members, as well as the appreciation I have for the beauty of simply life itself always inexplicably reaches a peak during this harmonica solo. Whilst Alex, understandably so, did not have an answer for my somewhat rhetorical question, I have since been forced to ask myself that again. This time, however, it was not Stevie Wonder who triggered this but Belgium Jazz legend Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans.
Toots is to the harmonica what Miles Davis is to the trumpet, or what Charlie Parker is to the saxophone. Nowhere, is this clearer than in his 1958 album Man Bites Harmonica, in which Toots spends nearly 40 minutes proving that the harmonica is more than a toy or a gimmick for blues artists to give a half-arsed dabble at. Full disclosure, I really enjoy jazz music. I have several delightful memories from times spent in a particular Nottingham jazz bar (big shout-out to Peggy’s Skylight, go and visit if you get the chance). I know that as a genre it is not everybody’s cup of tea and often has the propensity to be rather pretentious and almost masturbatory in its nature; but I assure you, this particular jazz album is far for from that. For me, I tend to categorise jazz that I love into two schools. The first being jazz that is almost hypnotic in its nature, which can tell a deep and powerful story without a single lyric being sung. The second is fun, chaotic, and meaningless jazz that leaves me feeling both joyous, whilst simultaneously jealous, as it is impossible not to be left with a profound admiration for a talented jazz musician’s abilities. Toots firmly fits into the second category. Whilst I cannot say I was moved on an emotional level or felt like I had been able to paint a picture of a story through Toots’ music, this is not a problem. I do not believe that was what he was going for. Toots, like many jazz musicians of his time, was an entertainer, and if I can guarantee anything, this album will not leave you short-changed on entertainment.
It may be rather reductive to rank the songs, although personally speaking, I particularly enjoyed the slower and sexier tracks which include Don’t Blame Me, Imagination and my favourite from the album Soul Station. However, these are not necessarily reflective of what Toots can do best with a harmonica (in fact, Imagination is the one track that doesn’t feature the instrument). If you are looking for something a lot faster and want to hear Toots show off with a harmonica then let me direct you towards Toots’ light-hearted tracks such as 18th Century Ballroom, Strutting With Some Barbecue and Fundamental Frequency which all use the bebop style that was popularised in the 1940s. Overall, as long as you go into this album without expectancy of hearing a moving and emotional jazz piece, and instead approach it with a curiosity about how someone could make a simple harmonica the focal-point of an album you are bound to enjoy it. Then perhaps when you next think of Belgium you’ll hear the echoes of its fun and upbeat jazz before you even begin to salivate over the thought of their world-famous chocolate, waffles or beer.