SR5020: Erwin Helfer Way - Erwin Helfer
In the Chicago blues piano tradition, each player developed his own personal style, from Jimmy Yancey to Albert Ammons. Erwin Helfer’s style and his compositions are his own. His playing and personality are honest, straightforward, and committed to strong personal connections, on the bandstand and off.
On “Erwin Helfer Way”, Helfer plays solo, and he is also joined by some of his closest collaborators including Barrelhouse Chuck, John Brumbach, William “Bugs” Cochran, Lou Marini, and Skinny Williams. This disc is another masterpiece by Helfer, who is the last living link to the Yancey’s.
Other related recordings by The Sirens Records include:
Music CD Reviews
“… This time out, veteran Chicago pianist Helfer is joined by saxophonists John Brumbach and Skinny Williams, bassist Lou Marini, and drummer William “Bugs”
Cochran, along with fellow keyboardist Barrelhouse Chuck, who contributes organ on one track and piano on another.
As usual, Helfer offers standards (and long forgotten gems), as well as freshly conceived originals. Among the former are a jubilant Chicken Shack
(featuring the two saxes head-to-head, screaming, stuttering, and honking at each other as if walking the bar in a vintage-era South Side club); an affectionate but decidedly non-sentimental
remake of The Fives, a Hershal Thomas composition best known for Cripple Clarence Lofton’s 1936 version; a take on Jelly Roll Morton’s Winin’ Boy and Tin Roof Blues (the latter also featuring Brumbach on tenor)
that effectively capture Jelly’s personalized fusion of humor, virtuosity, and tender-hearted ebullience; and – as if to show he’s not just a roots obsessed boogie man – a churchy rundown on Horace Silver’s The Preacher,
which again allows Brumbach and Williams to testify and signify at each other with deliciously irreverent, pseudo-sanctified fervor. There’s no clowning, though, on the Thomas Dorsey gospel standard Take My Hand,
Precious Lord, on which Helfer comps gracefully behind Brumbach’s deep-spirited tenor and then offers up his own solo, rich in melody and life-affirming tenderness.
The Helfer originals are equally satisfying, ranging from the train-like E&C Boogie, featuring deft four-handed interplay between Helfer and Barrelhouse Chuck, to Helfer’s
Yancey-like stride meditation Within. Chuck contributes a flowing, church-inspired organ to Big Joe, Helfer’s tribute to his old friend Big Joe Williams.
Any Erwin Helfer album promises relaxed, finely honed musical craftsmanship, showcased in an atmosphere of unabashed love and devotion to the stride/boogie-woogie heritage and the musicians who created and nurtured it.
This one is no exception.
“… Erwin has been around for a long time. He was born in Chicago in 1936 and was recording veteran blues pianists back in the ‘50’s, when he
also ‘rediscovered’ Cripple Clarence Lofton, and ever since he has continued to champion the blues. Back in the late ‘70’s Dobell’s Record Shop always seemed to have a copy of one of
the EPs Helfer recorded with Big Joe Williams, and it seemed like an old record even then. Erwin has a sizeable discography – though perhaps not one commensurate with his
longevity – long-standing relationship with Steven Dolins’ label, The Sirens Records.
The opening ‘Chicken Shack’ may come as a surprise to those expecting pre-World War 2 blues piano piano stylings – it is a romping piece of the kind of r&b Erwin Helfer heard
around the Windy City in the ‘50’s, with appropriately blasting saxes by long-time Helfer associates Skinny Williams and John Brumbach, and this full-on approach is reprised on the
closing track, Horace Silver’s soul-jazz anthem.
Sandwiched in between are solo items – try ‘Within’ for a very fine blues original, first recorded in 1973 – a piano and organ piece entitled ‘Big Joe’ (with Barrelhouse Chuck on
the organ, reprising a role originally taken by Sunnyland Slim on the album ‘Heavy Timbre’), a little jazz trio work and a fine version of ‘The Fives’, a joyfully swinging ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’
with Brumbach supplying excellent honking sax work, and of course, some – though perhaps not as much as expected – boogie woogie; ‘E&C Boogie’ is an aptly named duet between Erwin and Chuck.
The set is all-instrumental, I should add.
This is a solid, unpretentious release, the kind of album that is heard all too rarely these days. Enjoyable and engaging, it could be overlooked in all the hype around the latest
blues-rock release – but please don’t do that, it would mean you missing out on something of an understated gem.”
“For close to 60 years, pianist Erwin Helfer has refined his approach to blues and boogie-woogie repertoire that thrived decades ago. He connected to that tradition’s
masters while also teaching generations of students in his Chicago home. Many of those students have embraced more modern jazz idioms, without abandoning his lessons.
A group of those former students join Helfer for this disc. So, as can be expected, the disc is a joyous affair: like the way Helfer and tenor saxophonists John Brumbach and Skinny Williams
trade solos on their version of Horace Silver’s “The Preacher”. Helfer and protégé Barrelhouse Chuck continually rework their solos on each other’s ideas throughout “E&C Boogie”.
The trio of Helfer, bassist Lou Marini and drummer William “Bugs” Cochran have an easygoing charm on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy”. But throughout Erwin Helfer Way, subtleties emerge
that show how tricky it is to perform this music right. Helfer’s own composition, “Within” features all sorts of complex intertwined left hand-right hand movements. Marini succeeds in
coming up with an answer to the pianist’s own strong bass lines. ”
“If one artist could be said to epitomise everything that is great about blues piano – then that person is Erwin Helfer.
Over a period of seven decades Helfer has been developing his unique style of playing, a fact recognised by the City of Chicago who have even named the street that he lives in Erwin Helfer Way.
Helfer has played and recorded with the likes of Speckled Red, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Big Joe Williams, Mama Yancey, Sunnyland Slim, Blind john Davis, Jimmy Walker and Homesick James – and he
brings all of these influences to bear on this superb recording.
Accompanied in various formats by John Brumbach, Skinny Williams, Barrelhouse Chuck, “Bugs” Cochran and Lou Marini, Helfer delivers what I can only describe as a masterclass in blues piano.
Helfer opens with the wild R&B of ‘Chicken Shack’, his joyous and infectiously rocking piano underpinned by a swinging horn section. Helfer’s command of gospel piano is evident on a heartfelt rendition of
Thomas Dorsey’s ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ replete with Brumbach’s breathy sax – Horace Silver’s ‘The Preacher’ is a slab of pure Crescent City R&B – ‘Big Joe’, a tribute to the nine-string guitar master,
is deeply bluesy accentuated by Barrelhouse Chuck’s churchy organ – ‘E&C Boogie’ simply rocks – whilst ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ swings irresistibly.
‘Erwin Helfer’s Way’ is played Erwin Helfer’s way … enough said! (www.thesirensrecords.com) ”
“… Helfer, of course, is a genuine Chicago treasure—one of the greatest living exponents of boogie-woogie and old-fashioned blues piano, and one of the most modest,
affable human beings on the planet. Earlier this year he released a typically refined and entertaining album called Erwin Helfer Way (Sirens)—the title refers to the stretch
of Magnolia Avenue he lives on, which was christened for him by the city's honorary street-naming program in 2006. The recording features Helfer in a variety of instrumental
settings with his regular cast of collaborators. There are raucous, hard-driving blues like the opener "Chicken Shack," with dueling tenor saxophones played by John Brumbach
and Skinny Williams—bassist Lou Marini and drummer William "Bugs" Cochran, a onetime member of Sun Ra's Arkestra, are the rhythm section throughout the record, save for some
solo pieces and a pair of duets with fellow keyboardist Barrelhouse Chuck—as well as a version of the Horace Silver tune "The Preacher," where Helfer and company vibrantly
flavor the hard bop with some stride, swing, and R&B. The pianist takes some concise solos on these band tracks, and he also shows what a peerless accompanist he can be.
But for me the best moments on the album are the three tracks when Helfer is all alone, where one can bask in the interplay between his right and left hands. There's the
driving barrelhouse bass line he inserts beneath his jaunty take on the standard "Exactly Like You," and the leisurely pace he takes on the early jazz piece
"Baby Won't You Please Come Home," played with his usual elegant phrasing. Below you can check out the Helfer original "Within," a lovely ballad that captures his mastery of
the blues and showcases his lyric tenderness. ”