The Sirens Records


SR5024: Last Call   -- Erwin Helfer



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As these new recordings prove, Helfer's octogenarian status has not slowed him down a bit; he's still tickling the ivories with the same verve that he's done so throughout his career. On one track, Helfer is joined by his two longtime collaborators, tenor sax player John Brumbach and vocalist Katherine Davis. This disc also marks the debut of vocalist Ardella Williams. We have included three historical, never released before, recordings by Erwin: two 1957 recordings by Estelle 'Mama' Yancey with Erwin's accompaniment and a 1979 live recording with Mama, Erwin, Odie Payne Jr., and Truck Parham. Like all of the great Chicago pianists before him, Erwin learned directly from the masters but developed his own, distinctive, lyrical style; on this disc you can hear his evolution from the 1950's through the 1970's to today.

Steven B. Dolins, President of The Sirens Records
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Press / Music CD Reviews

Every musical track on the album is an artistic masterpiece … Every single piano blues fan needs Last Call – as in NOW!

Rainey Wetnight, Blues Blast Magazine, December 29, 2016
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This is a wonderful release, available from www.thesiresnrecords.com, by Erwin Helfer, a major pianist who deserves to be much better known.

Scott Yanow, L.A. Jazz Scene, November 2016
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This review starts at the end of the CD, with the three astonishing, never-released, historical gems from when Helfer was the pianist for Estelle "Mama" Yancey in 1957, including Operator Blues and Trouble in Mind. Chicago drummer Odie Payne and bassist Truck Parham join Yancey and Helfer on a live recording from 1979 of Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor. These songs alone are worth the price of the album.

Frank Matheis, Living Blues, October 2016
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In this particular review, yours truly has done two things she has never done before: 1) put the word "spectacular" in the "Styles" heading, and 2) use this descriptor regarding "blues covers". On principle, Ms. Wetnight saves any superlatives for the main body of an article. Also on principle, she doesn't cheer about covers. Who has caused her to make such exceptions to her long-standing review rules? His name is Erwin Helfer, absolute master of Chicago piano blues. Mentor and collaborator to the late, great Barrelhouse Chuck – RIP, lifelong friend of the art – Helfer himself is still going strong at four-score-and-none (that's 80 years old). From the very first notes on his latest CD, Last Call, he'll hold listeners rapt with every ring of the ivory keys to which he has dedicated his life. Even on songs they might literally have heard hundreds of times before, such as "St. James Infirmary" and "Bright Lights, Big City", those who hear Erwin's versions will feel rejuvenated from head to toe. This Sirens Records release will lure fans galore.

According to the biographical section of his website, "The sounds and personalities of past boogie-woogie and blues pianists have nurtured Erwin's musical growth. For many years, Erwin accompanied Mama Yancey, the wife of Chicago blues piano patriarch Jimmy 'Papa' Yancey, and later recorded one album with her. He was also mentored and influenced by Cripple Clarence Lofton, Speckled Red, and Sunnyland Slim." Three historical recordings starring Mama Yancey are indeed featured here (tracks eleven, twelve and thirteen). Also collaborating with Helfer are lead vocalist Ardella Williams, daughter of Jazz Gillum, who wrote "Key to the Highway", lead vocalist Katherine Davis, tenor sax virtuoso John Brumbach, bassist Truck Parham, and drummer Odie Payne Jr.

Every musical track on the album is an artistic masterpiece, but which ones are the most vibrant? This reviewer submits these three piano tapestries:

Track 01: "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" – More than anything, a weary traveler needs a place to lay his head. This CD's opening number, originally composed by Jimmy "Papa" Yancey and recorded on March 14, 2016, is a gut-wrenching plea for the humblest of beds. One can almost hear the sound of rain on one's roof, smell encroaching ceiling mold, hear the drip-drip-drip of a persistent leak, and understand why the subject of this song wants only a warm, dry pallet.

Track 02: "DC Boogie" – Causing a happy case of ‘mood whiplash' after the last track, this one is the only original one on Last Call. It brings to mind the excitement of our nation's capital and its nightlife, with more than a trace of the sound of rapid-fire political slogans. Sometimes you don't know which way is up in the District of Columbia, or when to take your turn on one of the city's infamous roundabouts. "DC Boogie" brilliantly captures all of this colorful chaos.

Track 13: "Operator Blues" – This thirteenth number is luckier than most, because it's a fantastic historical recording starring Helfer and Mama Yancey. "He was a cruel old farmer, low-down dirty engineer," she explains in a strident, mid-pitch trill that would make any actual telephone operator sit up and pay attention. "He's taken my baby away, left me standing there." Recorded live circa 1979, it's a terrific example of what much older, pre-war blues sounded like.

As an added bonus, the fourteenth track, "A Conversation with Erwin," is an autobiographical revelation about Helfer's early life, friends, and blues mentors.

Every single piano blues fan needs Last Call – as in NOW!

Rainey Wetnight, Blues Blast Magazine, December 29, 2016
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Over six decades and close to a score of albums, Erwin Helfer has set himself up as a superior Chicago blues, jazz, and boogie pianist. Something of a patchwork, his latest offering stiches together 10 tunes from recent sessions and three songs recorded with storied singer Mama Yancey in 1957 and 1979.

Helfer, at 80 years young, conjures much the same sunny or dark moods cast by his forebears Jimmy Yancey (Mama's husband) and Cripple Clarence Lofton. Solo tracks and those co-featuring Mama are the real delights, with fainter praise going to collaborations with singers Katherine Davis and Ardella Williams and tenor saxophonist John Brumbach.

Frank John Hadley, Downbeat, December 2016
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Erwin Helfer, who turned 80 earlier this year, is a superb blues and boogie-woogie pianist based in Chicago. His style is not just a throwback to 1930's blues and jazz but an individual voice that is creative within the genre. Last Call, which hopefully will be far from his last recording, has plenty of variety taken from different sessions, all of it previously unreleased.

The first ten selections, dating from 2014-2016, feature Helfer as a solo pianist and, on three occasions, accompanying the singing of either Ardella Williams or Katherine Davis while being joined by the supportive tenor-saxophonist John Brumbach. Whether it is a solo boogie-woogie romp on "The Fives," a thoughtful "Pennies From Heaven," a tender version of "Four O' Clock Blues," or "St. Louis Blues," Helfer's playing is timeless and classic.

A special bonus is the inclusion of three numbers on which Helfer works with the classic blues singer Mama Yancey. Two duets are from 1957 while "Make Me A Pallet On The Floor" is with Yancey and a rhythm section in 1979. Concluding the disc is a 15-minute interview with Helfer during which he talks about his life and his musical heroes.

This is a wonderful release, available from www.thesiresnrecords.com, by Erwin Helfer, a major pianist who deserves to be much better known.

Scott Yanow, L.A. Jazz Scene, November 2016
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"Last Call" has been issued to mark Erwin's eightieth birthday; never fear though, he is still near the top of his game. This set includes recent recordings, some solo and highlighting his delicate, artistic touch or his thoughtful boogie-woogie playing, with the influence of Jimmy Yancey particularly noticeable. "St. Louis Blues" and "The Rocky Mountain Blues" feature Ardella Williams, the daughter of Jazz Gillum but a fine singer certainly not riding on her father's coat-tails. Erwin's regular sax player John Brumbach also adds to these two, as he does too to "Bright Lights, Big City", well sung by Katherine Davis. Erwin's skill at working with female vocalists is further demonstrated by "Operator Blues", "Trouble in Mind" and the second version of "Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor", all of which feature Estelle "Mama" Yancey and are previously unissued. The first two named date from 1957, with the third live recording from 1979 with Odie Payne Jr. and Truck Parham helping out on drums and bass respectively. This fine set of mainly vintage blues is completed with an informative fifteen minutes long interview with Erwin reminiscing about his mentors and peers.

Norman Darwen, Blues and Rhythm, October 2016
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This album by Chicago pianist Erwin Helfer will surely put a smile on your face and give you a lift. He is someone you should know because he is so very, very good and it's time that he gets his deserved due. Hopefully, this album titled Last Call will not be an indicator of anything imminent. Erwin Helfer may be 80, but he looks great and sounds forever young. A wonderful guy, congenial and affable, the modest Helfer is still a giant of the blues piano, a powerful artist of supreme skill and impeccable taste who can play it strong. He still actively plays and teaches workshops to eager students who know they are privileged to learn from a true Chicago blues master who has carried on the music of the golden era of the blues. The only way he shows his age is when he sits behind the keyboard and masterfully takes you back to the turn of the 20th century, as if you were sitting in a 1920's speakeasy, or a Southside Chicago lounge in the Depression era. He's no revivalist. He's the authentic, real as it gets blues pianist who lived it and has seen it all.

This review starts at the end of the CD, with the three astonishing, never-released, historical gems from when Helfer was the pianist for Estelle "Mama" Yancey in 1957, including Operator Blues and Trouble in Mind. Chicago drummer Odie Payne and bassist Truck Parham join Yancey and Helfer on a live recording from 1979 of Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor. These songs alone are worth the price of the album.

For the new recordings, Helfer is joined by longtime mates, tenor sax player John Brumbach and vocalist Katherine Davis. The sultry Ardella Williams, the daughter of Jazz Gillum, composer of Key to the Highway, joins him on St. Louis Blues and the Rocky Mountain Blues.

He starts the album with a delightful rendition of Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor, followed by fast moving DC Boogie. His version of St. James Infirmary, St. Louis Blues and Pennies From Heaven remind you why these classics were among of the greatest tunes written in the 20th century. He does justice to Jimmy Reed's Bright Lights, Big City and Ivory Joe Hunter's I Almost Lost My Mind, but nothing shines here like when he goes home to Jimmy Yancey's Four O' Clock Blues, which he plays with such finesse and feeling, and yes, with love and admiration.

Hurry to Erwin Helfer, a true legend in a world where many claim, but few actually deserve that luminous title. Simply beautiful old time blues piano that will hopefully live on forever.

Frank Matheis, Living Blues, October 2016
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Little Brother Montgomery, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Baby Dodds, Bunk Johnson, Jimmy and Estelle "Mama" Yancey — these are just some of the jazz and blues legends whose music lives on in the playing of Chicago blues and boogie-woogie piano master Erwin Helfer.

Initially self-taught, Helfer absorbed the sounds of the traditional blues and boogie-woogie piano that sparked his imagination, first in Chicago, and later on in New Orleans. He would go on to study classical music, refining his technique and creating a distinctive blues and boogie-woogie style that is earthy yet elegant, precise yet passionate.

Last Call is Helfer's fourth solo outing on Chicago's The Sirens Records. The CD was recorded live over a two year period between 2014 and 2016. Comprised mostly of Helfer on solo piano, he also provides accompaniment to label mates John Brumbach on tenor sax, vocalist Katherine Davis, and long-time Cook County Deputy Sheriff turned singer, Ardella Williams. Williams is the daughter of the legendary harmonica player Jazz Gillum. A special treat is the inclusion of three never released sides dubbed "Historical recordings with Mama Yancey," recorded in 1957 and 1979 respectively. Helfer played and recorded with Mama Yancey for a number of years. Her husband, barrelhouse piano master Jimmy "Papa" Yancey passed away in 1951, before Erwin had a chance to meet him. Erwin reminisces fondly about "Mama" and his musical past on the final track, "A Conversation with Erwin Helfer."

Last Call is a mix of instrumental and vocal numbers that takes us on a musical voyage of blues, jazz, boogie-woogie, and pop. References to the tradition abound and are coupled with nods to various more contemporary sounds throughout. Erwin opens the CD with Jimmy Yancey's classic tune, "Make Me A Pallet on the Floor," a blues infused jazz number, calling up images of 1940s film noir – the lone piano player, smoke curling from his cigarette, playing in a darkened bar. On "DC Boogie," an original tune, Helfer launches into a rousing boogie-woogie, with dissonant overtones evocative of Thelonious Monk. The pop tune, "Pennies From Heaven," opens with a meditative Gershwin-like intro, continuing on in jaunty fashion with elements of stride piano and boogie-woogie. Helfer imbues Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Almost Lost My Mind," with deep blues, while creating intricate right hand figures and patterns that give it a classical feel. "The Fives," a rousing tune by influential boogie-woogie pianist Herschel Thomas and his brother George Thomas, lighten the mood, while Jimmy Yancey's "Four O'Clock Blues" takes us back to that smoky bar. Erwin's interpretation of the classic, "St. James Infirmary," is a masterpiece. His deep blues feeling and elegant execution combine to evoke the pathos of Erik Satie's, "Gymnopédie."

Helfer teams up with John Brumbach, and Ardella Williams for a jazzy/bluesy take on the W.C. Handy standard, "St. Louis Blues." Ardella channels the classic female blues singers of the ‘20s and ‘30s, her voice reminiscent of the great Mamie Smith. The trio moves from the city to the country with Lightnin' Hopkins', "Rocky Mountain Blues;" Erwin's barrelhouse piano replaces Hopkins' intricate, percussive country blues guitar. Sax man John Brumbach is a veteran musician with a background in blues, jazz and R&B. He has played and recorded with Chaka Khan, her sister Taka Boom, The Parliaments, Otis Clay, and the Gap Band, to name a few. Veteran vocalist and Chicago treasure Katherine Davis is also a frequent collaborator with Helfer and Brumbach. She adds a bluesy jazz vocal to the swinging version of Jimmy Reed's, "Bright Lights, Big City."

The three historical recordings complete the musical portion of the CD. "Operator Blues," and "Trouble in Mind" were recorded in 1957. Featuring Mama on vocals with Erwin's accompaniment, the songs were first recorded on reel-to-reel tapes. They have since been "baked" and digitally re-mastered and the sound quality is remarkable. "Operator Blues," (co-written by the pair) features 61-year-old Mama Yancey sounding like a woman half her age. She transports us back in time to another era when female vocalists mesmerized the listener with the power of their voices and the depth of their blues. "Trouble in Mind," is another atmospheric tune. Mama's vocals, and Erwin's barrelhouse piano, conjure up the days of Southern gin joints and barrelhouses where the men swung their blues, and the women swayed accordingly. Lastly, we have the historical version of "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor." Recorded live in Chicago in 1979, Mama Yancey sings accompanied by Erwin, legendary drummer Odie Payne, Jr. and distinctly different feel. We're once again in that smoky bar, but the blues is more straight ahead and the feeling is more of camaraderie than isolation.

At age 80, Erwin Helfer remains a master interpreter and boogie-woogie innovator on the upright piano. His forty-year-plus career in music has taken him from blues and boogie-woogie, to classical studies, and back again. Last Call appears to be but another step on the path toward making music in the most unique and distinctive way.

Beverly Zeldin-Palmer, Chicago Blues Guide
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A lion-in-winter enterprise with the most admirable of intentions, Last Call serves as both career summation and potential swan song on record for Chicago piano icon Erwin Helfer. Part of the city's traditional jazz community for well over a half century, Helfer still performs regularly in a variety of settings although, as an octogenarian, mortality is most certainly on his mind. That diversity of activity finds an analogue in the program, which presents his piano acumen in a varying range of contexts both logistical and temporal from solo to ensemble and accompanist. The Sirens has made stewardship of Helfer's later career a cornerstone of their catalog and the set fits right in with that praiseworthy purview.

Seven of the first ten pieces on the disc feature Helfer sans accompaniment of any kind. His active and agile right hand figures lace seamlessly with a steady rolling left to create syncopations and variations of elegant ingenuity on gray-maned warhorses like "St. James Infirmary" and "Pennies from Heaven". Recorded in the studio of the past three years, the music comes through with a clarity that only boosts Helfer's credibility. His regular colleagues tenorist John Brumbach and Katherine Davis join him for "Bright Lights, Big City" while vocalist Ardella Williams takes the mic for a leisurely, but soulful strolls through "St. Louis Blues" and Lightnin' Hopkins' "Rocky Mountain Blues".

The final three tracks turn the calendar back to 1957 and 1979 for snapshots of Helfer in younger guises and in the company of revered Windy City blues chanteuse Estelle "Mama" Yancey. "Operator Blues" and "Trouble in Mind" offer intimate duets between the two. "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" adds bassist Truck Parham and drummer Odie Payne, Jr. to the equation, freeing Helfer up on the rhythmic end and allowing him even more latitude outside an accompanist's role. A fifteen-minute interview where Helfer expounds on his life experiences caps the set and dispels any doubt as to his bonafides as one of Chicago's (now mostly) hidden musical treasures.

Derek Taylor, Dusted Magazine, August 8, 2016
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The Chicago blues piano tradition lives on in these two recordings by two long-time second generation masters of the form. 80-year old Erwin Helfer does a more wistful and nostalgic take on the blues on his disc. His playing is relaxed and elegant as he dissects ancient tunes like "St. James Infirmary" and "Make Me A Pallet". His interpolation of "After Hours" into "I Almost Lost My Mind" is particularly nice. When he plays fast he makes elaborate constructions out of basic boogies like "The Fives" and "DC Boogie". Most of the CD is Helfer solo but he gets help sometimes. Ardella Williams sings lowdown and gritty on "St. Louis Blues" and "Rocky Mountain Blues" while Katherine Davis comes off superbly sassy on "Bright Lights". John Brumbach contributes an enthusiastic tenor sax to all three tracks. There are also three tracks from 1957 and 1979 of Helfer accompanying a classic blues singer, Estelle "Mama" Yancey" who sounds in really salty form. All this establishes Helfer's bonafides as one of the great living elders of Chicago piano.

Jerome Wilson, Cadence Magazine, January-February 2017
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