With 2014’s retirement of Toots Thielemans, Prene has taken the opportunity to release an album in tribute to Thielemans and with Prene is guitarist extraordinaire Pasquale Grasso. The album is “Merci Toots.” This is Prene’s third album as a leader and he is a much sought-after contributor.
I first heard Prene on Lorin Cohen’s album “Hone” and was staggered at the beauty and warmth of his playing. So I was in great anticipation for the hearing of “Merci Toots.”
As Thielemans and pianist Kenney Werner formed a dynamic duo, so have Prene and Grasso who first met in 2012 and formed an instant musical bond. It is fitting that Prene has chosen a guitarist as musical partner in this tribute because Thielemans himself was also a guitarist (and famous whistler). Prene and Grasso are familiar and confident with each other and it shows from the opening notes.
Prene has chosen nine mainstream pieces that are familiar to all Jazz listeners but it the improvisations that are so exciting and noteworthy.
The album is introduced with Bud Powell’s “Celia.” What a great start! Grasso opens the piece warmly and is soon joined by Prene’s chromatic harmonica.
“Celia” informs the listener right away that this album is going to be a treat. The respectful but still improvisational approach to Bud Powell was delightful.
“Dameronia” by Tadd Dameron follows after. Grasso creates a full, even lush, backdrop to Prene’s thrilling runs. Their interplay is focused and tight. A duo is a challenge but, as Prene says, “We wanted to make an album which reflects the interaction that can happen onstage between tow musicians who enjoy playing together.” “Dameronia” was one of the tunes that they had not played together on stage before and this gives an added freshness to the piece.
Charlie Parker’s “Koko” is splendidly recreated. Again, the duo accomplishes a formidable reevaluation of what Parker’s ensemble did. The question keeps arising, “Can these two really render the fullness of the original group’s performance?” The answer is always in the affirmative.
I admittedly held my breath for Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” It is one of my favorite tunes by one of my favorite Jazz masters. I never expected to be so completely moved so deeply and so nearly to tears. Wonderfully interpreted.
Prene and Grasso display a tender affection for the piece that is remarkable. This was also a piece that was new for them to perform together. This track got many, many replays. The closing section is spectacular.
Charlie Parker gets another nod with “Confirmation.” It is a challenging piece but it receives a fun and bouncy treatment from Prene and Grasso. The quick changes are handled with impressive ease. Grasso is equally impressive with his lock-step speed and the two musicians show amazing interaction.
“Be Bop” by Dizzy Gillespie is an even more exacting revelation of that interaction. The improvisations on “Be Bop” are heart-stopping. This may be the real showcase for their cooperative melodic lines. It is also the most fun track on the album.
The one track on the album composed by Thielemans himself is “Bluesette.” It is the piece that used guitar and whistling together and Prene and Grasso take on the parts brilliantly. It further proves Prene’s correct decision to form a duo with Grasso for this album.
“Little Girl Blue” is a Richard Rodgers standard. It is a sweet and charming melody which is treated gently by Prene and Grasso. It is difficult to get enough of this track. Grasso’s approach is delicate and warm against Prene’s air of innocence and wonder. Sweet and melancholy.
Paul Raye’s “Star Eyes” is lively and playful. It is a fine example of the duo’s handling of a standard. It is given a fresh twist and new interpretation.
The whole album is fresh, despite being a tribute to a Jazz genius. The emotion that Prene and Grasso bring to the works of Jazz greats is moving. Yvonnick Prene is skilled and talented without a doubt but there is a depth to him that calls to the depths within the listener. It is no wonder that he is in such demand.
For Jazz harmonica, Toots Thielemans is no longer the only game in town. The impact of the master on Prene is unmistakable, to be sure. In fact, Yvonnick Prene would probably agree that there would be no Prene with Toots. And for that, we say “Merci, Toots.”
Purchase “Merci Toots” on cdbaby here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/yvonnickprene5
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