Yeah, right. Effortless mastery. Yeah. Right. Effortless mastery – that’s what you had up there on the bandstand at Scullers on March 31st, when Kenny Werner and Toots Thielemans were at Scullers. Separately and together, they have such command over their instruments that their ideas go directly from their ears and minds to their instruments, which is a musician’s dream come true. After playing together many years – I recognized songs they’d recorded in 2002 – the duo has a refined musical synergy, with dynamics, harmony and rhythm articulated as one. They understood each other so well musically during the show, it was sometimes hard to tell if Werner anticipated what tensions to play behind Thielemans, or if Thielemans found the notes that belonged where Werner was headed.
The romantic melodicism and nimble fills in Thielemans’s playing matched his equally expressive body language. He swayed, hunched and raised his shoulders, frowned, grinned, mugged, and knocked himself upside the head with his harmonica (“These things, they’re all no good”). Or he’d shoot a look of mock befuddlement at Kenny Werner’s pianistic romps.
Kenny was certainly dancing around those keys, with an orchestrator’s ear on synthesizer, and an accompanist’s sensitivities on the piano behind Toots’s lines, which have a very vocal quality. Both lyricism and bebop coursed through Werner’s ideas, as he varied attack, phrasing, and accent to match the mood.
There were some nice musical twists to what was pretty much an evening of standards. After “Autumn Leaves” opened on a mournful harp cadenza, Werner spiced things up with dissonances and accents, sounding at times like a guy temporarily off his meds. A quote from “La Marseillaise” seemed to sneak in at the end of the tune. “I Loves You Porgy,” introduced with lush synthesizer harmonies accompanying Toots, moved to a 6/8 motif reminiscent of the vamp opening Miles Davis’s “All Blues. ” After modal allusions to “Summertime” and “Footprints,” “Porgy” resolved on attenuated tensions.
Both Werner and the audience forgave Toots for initially drawing a blank when Kenny called “Blue in Green.” Playing the progression didn’t help, either, so Werner took the direct approach, shouting out the title. Then everything fell into place. Hey, when 89, you’re entitled. Once into the tune, Toots locked into its musical and emotional core with one of the most moving solos of the evening.
Young alto saxophonist Grace Kelly joined the duo in an unannounced cameo, as the baton was extended to another generation on a stage that represented over six decades of playing. As for Mr. Thielemans, he was “discovered,” he said, 61 years ago. “Jazz is a virus,” Toots mused, “that you can pick up anywhere.” He was bitten quite young by that aural-borne pathogen, after listening to Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers. He still has it. To show that the affliction hasn’t done him or Kenny Werner any harm, they encored with one of Pops’s hits, “What a Wonderful World.”