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CD REVIEW -- Erwin Helfer
GLT blues radio

ERWIN HELFER

Last Call

The Sirens Records

Erwin Helfer Last Call CD

by Beverly Zeldin-Palmer

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 Truck Parham on bass. In contrast to the solo version recorded this year, the live version has a 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.

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