Chicago has been indispensable to the development of America’s blues music, and this town has had no better practitioner of blues piano than 80-year old master pianist Erwin Helfer.
A long-time resident of the city’s North Side, Helfer has been performing professionally since the 1960s. An inveterate bicyclist (“that’s the way I get around,” he said recently), Helfer’s style features strong, clear chords; the traditional “stride” style; and clear melody lines.
No one else sounds quite like him.
Helfer has released a new CD, “Last Call,” and it’s a wonderful aural treat, featuring Helfer on solo piano, along with Helfer playing alongside the singers and instrumentalists he has come to regard as his “good friends.”
The price of the CD is $16.
On Sept. 10, at 8 p.m., the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave., will host a CD-release party and concert honoring Helfer and several of his musical compatriots from Highland Park-based label The Sirens Records. (In addition to Helfer’s “Last Call,” the concert will celebrate the releases of two other Sirens discs: “Lift Me Up,” featuring 11 of this town’s best gospel keyboard masters; and “Remembering the Masters,” featuring the one-and-only Barrelhouse Chuck, one of Chicago’s finest keyboardists, and his long-time accompanist on the guitar, Billy Flynn, among others.)
The Sirens Records has packaged Erwin Helfer’s “Last Call” CD beautifully. There are ample liner notes about Helfer and his musical compatriots, plenty of pictures (including one of the pianist at his instrument, with a small white bird perched atop his music stand), and, of course, the music. Included are contemporary recordings of Helfer playing alongside his long-time musical partners Katherine Davis (vocals) and John Brumbach (sax). There are a couple of tracks of Helfer playing alongside vocalist Ardella Williams. And there are historic recordings of Helfer with singer Estelle “Mama” Yancey, drummer Odie Payne, Jr., and bassist Truck Parham.
Williams has a clear, mid-range, no-nonsense voice, and her singing sounds just right atop Helfer’s chords. When Helfer is joined by vocalist Davis and saxophonist Brumbach, we hear the kind of traditional Chicago blues ensemble playing that can’t help but bring a smile to your face. And to hear the 1979 ensemble recording of Jimmy Yancey’s “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor,” with Helfer and Yancey joined by Payne and Parkham, is to hear raw Chicago-style blues at its syncopated best.
Mostly, there’s Helfer’s style, which can range from a traditional, urban Chicago-blues sound, to a nuanced interplay between the deep, bass sounds of the piano and the high, bird-like notes in the upper registers.
My favorite track: “I Almost Lost My Mind,” by Ivory Joe Hunter. To listen to Erwin Helfer play this heartfelt blues tune on solo piano is to feel and hear how expressive an instrument the piano can be.
Also on the CD: the final track, titled “A Conversation with Erwin,” in which Helfer talks about various aspects of his life story, including his roots on the South Side of Chicago, his family’s move to north-suburban Glencoe when he was young, and his first exposure to blues music, which he referred to as kind of a “religious experience.”
He also talks about his many friends and influences in the musical worlds of Chicago and New Orleans, including his deep friendship with “Mama” Yancey, who sings on three tracks of the “Last Call” CD, with Erwin accompanying her at the piano.
As always in his decades-long career, Helfer is busy this summer playing and teaching. You can hear Helfer every Wednesday night at the keyboards at The Barrelhouse Flat, 2624 N. Lincoln Ave. Helfer, whose shows begin about 8:30 p.m., can be heard upstairs, in a cozy, dark, candle-lit space, tickling the ivories and entertaining customers of every age and background on a black upright piano tucked alongside the tavern wall.
On Sunday, Sept. 4, at 12:30 p.m., Helfer is scheduled to play at the Chicago Jazz Festival in Millennium Park.
For updates and more information, visit Erwin Helfer’s website, erwinhelfer.com.
Tickets for the Sept. 10 Old Town School CD-release party, concert and celebration are $24, and are available on the school’s website or by calling 773 728-6000.
In a recent conversation, Helfer summed up his musician’s life this way: “It’s great,” he said, “doing what I’ve always done: playing music and teaching.”
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