I don’t remember when I first heard Toots Thielemans. He has always been part of my harmonica life. I was amazed particularly by his virtuosity on the album Man Bites Harmonica especially the tracks Don’t Be that Way and Scotch on the Rocks. His album with Bill Evans, Affinity has always been a reference especially his solo on Sno Peas, all the more miraculous to my ears since I tried improvising on those very difficult chord changes.
In January 1996 he agreed to be interviewed before a gig in Leiden, Netherlands. We met at his hotel and I spent a fascinating couple of hours questioning him about the chromatic harmonica. The interview was published later that year in Harmonica World.
About a year later I received a call to do my first orchestral session ever, depping for Toots on the film Hard Rain. He could not make the first morning’s recording and I was asked to fill his shoes. It was a terrifying experience walking into the legendary CTS studio in Wembley with dozens of other musicians. The title music featuring harmonica was first up and not easy! When Toots arrived he greeted me with a very warm hug remembering our conversation a year earlier.
The producers were impressed by this camaraderie and I was asked to stay on for the whole week of recording as adviser to the composer Christopher Young. It was particularly extraordinary to hear Toots play something absolutely fantastic over very difficult shifting atonal harmony. Toots had to leave before the final days recording so I played the remaining few cues myself and I earned a harmonica credit below Toots at the end of the film.
The last time I saw him was at the 2010 Cape Town International Jazz Festival. We met and talked at length the night before his superb gig on 3rd April which I attended. The sadness I feel at his passing still sits in my heart as I write.
This appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harmonica World as part of a special tribute to Toots.