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Artist: Toots Thielemans w/Billy Joel
Performance date: November 29, 2002
Publication: New York Times
At 80, Thielemans Orders It Sweet; Illinois Jacquet, Tart

By BEN RATLIFF

Just a reminder: In 1950, there were no 80-year-olds playing jazz, anywhere; appreciating the aged was not part of the discourse. Now jazz-club schedules are filled with birthday celebrations for milestones of 60 and up. Age is instant venerability, and venerability helps sell tickets; these gigs generally aren't complete until an enormous cake gets trundled out.

Two famous figures who turned 80 this year are celebrating in New York clubs through tomorrow; they are very different kinds of 80. Toots Thielemans, the Belgian harmonica-player, seemed dazzled by his glorious sunset, and found shelter under the umbrella of sophisticated schmaltz; Illinois Jacquet, the great swing saxophonist, remains as earthy as his Louisiana accent, still ordering his big band through blasting riff-tunes reminiscent of the 1950's Count Basie band; he tempered his own birthday moment with tart-tongued humor.

Mr. Thielemans, at the Blue Note, played most of his early set on Tuesday with his regular quartet, including the pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Ray Drummond, and drummer Billy Hart. He's in good shape, only losing wind at the end of a long string of notes; but he finds off-centered rhythms, attaining a little bit of freedom, knocking his instrument from side to side for tremolos. His song-choices were the sort of up-market, relaxing classics appreciated from here to the Côte d'Azur: Brubeck, Gershwin, Ivan Lins, Luiz Bonfa. At the end, he brought out a guitar, his first instrument, which he played more hesitantly.

Billy Joel appeared for some duets, and the flashbulbs went crazy. They played "Just the Way You Are" and "New York State of Mind," with Mr. Thielemans at home and happy in the songs, piping out chromatic obbligatos and harmonizing on choruses; he was joie de vivre itself. (The pianist George Shearing is to join Mr. Thielemans tonight, and the guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves tomorrow night.)

 

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