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Erwin Helfer & the Chicago Boogie Ensemble - Celebrate the Journey

Release date: January 20, 2021

The Sirens (SR - 5028)

By David Whiteis

Photo: Roman Sobus

After all these years, it’s still difficult to think of Erwin Helfer as an “elder statesman.” Of course, we know he’s 85 years old; we know he was mentored by some of the greatest figures in blues and boogie-woogie piano (start with New Orleans legends like Leon T. “Archibald” Gross, progress through Chicago-based icons such as Cripple Clarence Lofton, Little Brother Montgomery, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Walker, and Blind John Davis, and go on from there); we know he befriended and worked with Estelle “Mama” Yancey, the beloved widow of boogie-woogie master Jimmy Yancey, during the last decades of her fabled career; we know that his sidemen over the years have included some of the most iconic figures in Windy City blues and jazz; we know that he was instrumental in supporting erstwhile aspirants such as Deitra Farr, Katherine Davis, and the late Big Time Sarah early in their careers by featuring them as vocalists on his shows.

Yet, despite his age, he carries the torch that was handed down to him with elegance, grace, and a buoyant enthusiasm that might challenge that of a man 65 years his junior; when we think of Erwin Helfer, we think of life-affirming optimism – an indomitable spirit that welcomes us into a blues-enriched landscape of musical eloquence and playfully gritty uplift, albeit deepened by an undercurrent of hard-earned, sweet nostalgia. Helfer may well have been an “old soul” for most of his life, but his music retains a sparkling, childlike sense of wonder and delight.

On this set, recorded early in 2020 (just before the pandemic shut down our lives and our hearts), he’s joined by tenor saxophonists John Brumbach and Skinny Williams, bassist Lou Marini, and drummer Davide Ilardi. Although he’s known primarily as a blues and boogie-woogie roots man, Helfer has always had big ears and a stylistic range to match, and he demonstrates that by kicking off this set with a sauntering, casually hip remake of Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy.” Skinny Williams and John Brumbach may not be quite the bebop firebrand Rollins was in his prime, but they're certainly blues players, and they mine plenty of sparkling, deep-blue gems from Rollins’ classic theme. Befitting the unstated but overriding theme of these sessions – this is not a “superstar” ego trip, but a celebration of musical blood-brotherhood – Marini and Ilardi swing with low-key but unerringly focused ease throughout, as does Helfer, who interweaves rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic colorations and impetus whether he’s soloing or playing a temporary sideman’s role.

It’s always a challenge for a lover of tradition, such as Helfer, to breathe new life into material that’s too often been trivialized by “revivalists” and musical tripsters over the years; here, he and his colleagues resurrect a pair of jazz and pop’s most overcooked chestnuts – “Down By the Riverside” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” – and re-infuse them with their original, unselfconscious celebratory brio.

We’re also treated to three Helfer originals: “Big Joe,” a tender, slow-rolling boogie/stride tribute to Big Joe Williams (with whom Helfer recorded in 1957); “Pooch Piddle,” originally written for a beloved pet, on which the influence of New Orleans masters like Tuts Washington, James Booker, Professor Longhair, and Helfer’s old tutor, Archibald, makes itself joyfully apparent; and the richly elegiac “Day Dreaming” – a final, precious solo excursion into the heart and soul of one of blues piano’s most eloquent living practitioners.

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About The Author: David Whiteis is a Chicago writer and educator, who was awarded the Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. He is the author of Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories; Southern Soul-Blues; Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago; and Always the Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story. His articles have appeared in numerous blues and jazz magazines, both in the U.S. and overseas.


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