Erwin Helfer and the Chicago Boogie Ensemble – Celebrate the Journey
The Sirens Records SR-5028
8 songs – 49 minutes
A beloved fixture in the Chicago blues and jazz community for the better part of seven decades, Erwin Helfer observed his 85th birthday in January, but kicked the celebration off in style in March 2020 with this magical CD – an all-instrumental jam session with several of his closest friends and longtime collaborators.
Recorded almost in concert to the coronavirus shutdown, this is Helfer’s tenth release on The Sirens imprint in a career that began in 1957, when the Windy City native was living in New Orleans and produced Primitive Piano, an LP that featured the recently rediscovered Speckled Red, Big Easy keyboard innovator Billie Pierce and Doug Suggs in his only recordings. Released on Erwin’s own Tone label, some of the Speckled Red cuts appeared on the very first album issued by Delmark, too.
Helfer rose to prominence backing vocalist Estelle “Mama” Yancey and made his debut recordings in 1964 when he teamed with keyboard master Jimmy Walker on Rough and Ready: Boogie Woogie for Four Hands on Testament. A mentor to multiple generations of keyboard talents, he’s also enjoyed stops at Big Bear, Flying Fish, SteepleChase and Red Beans, too. This disc is dedicated to Barrelhouse Chuck, one of his most famous students, guitarist Pete Crawford, his partner in Red Beans, and Max Dolins, father of Sirens owner Steven.
Erwin’s backed here by John Brumbach and Skinny Williams on tenor sax, Lou Marini on bass and Davide Ilardi on drums – a lineup that played together on Tuesday nights for two years prior to COVID at the Hungry Brain, a popular club on the North Side of Chicago. This highly polished, but relaxed set features material from their regular set list.
The parallel tenors kick off a sweet take on Sonny Rollins’ jazz classic, “Doxy,” which swings from the opening bars, allowing the horns plenty of space to shine before yielding to Helfer for extended, two-hand-fisted solo with light touch that clearly demonstrates him to be at the top of his game. Brumbach and Williams trade leads and give way to a rhythm section break before the ensemble work together to close.
Helfer’s sweet, deliberate attack turns Jimmy Witherspoon’s familiar “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” into a delightful ballad to follow. Things heat up a little with individual horn and bass solos before Erwin lays down tasty runs to close. Then the traditional gospel number, “Down by the Riverside,” gets full-on New Orleans second-line treatment before the keyboard master launches into his original, “Poodle Piddle,” a dazzling minor-key pleaser executed with delicate, rapid-fire stride and barrelhouse attack on the 88s.
Two more numbers with Big Easy and Tin Pan Alley roots – “St. James Infirmary” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” – feel brand new thanks to modern arrangement despite being first played more than a century ago. Erwin’s well-modulated, minor-key break in the former breathes new emotion in the classic while the uptempo take on the latter will have you bopping, too.
Two more Helfer compositions – the unhurried “Big Joe,” in which the horns lay down the groove and Erwin filling in with the melody, and “Day Dreaming,” a tour-de-force solo effort on the keys — close the action and leave you with the desire to hear more, more more despite its 49-minute run.
Celebrate the Journey truly is a party among friends with Erwin providing his bandmates all the space they need to demonstrate their immense talents, too. It’s a treasure. Highly recommended for anyone with a love for classic, sophisticated stylings at the intersection of jazz and blues.