Erwin Helfer's name should not be a new one to fans of true boogie woogie or blues piano. Growing up on Chicago's south side, he immersed himself in the music that once flourished and rang from tenements and apartment buildings all over the city. Chicago was once the capital for house rent parties where piano wizards like Albert Ammons, Jimmy Yancey, Cripple Clarence Lofton, and others held court, and while Helfer might well be an elder statesman in the midst of what many consider a dying art today, if The Sirens label has anything to say, it's bound to live on in good health.
Over the course of 15 tracks with close to an hour of playing time, Helfer digs in and offers up stellar renditions of a wide variety of styles and by leading off with Pete Johnson's Swanee River Boogie, it's apparent that he learned his trade as well as any of his heroes. With a wicked left hand driving the bass and a right hand that swings effortlessly, Helfer not only pays tribute to his masters, but also manages flourishes of complete originality here and in Speckled Red's Dirty Dozens, minus the brash lyrics. His own Homage To Pete Johnson is riveting with a mind-numbing left hand playing a repetitive and rapidly descending pattern while his right seems to have a mind of its own, and for Stella, a tip of his hat to Estelle 'Mama' Yancey, John Brumbach's tenor sax adds brilliantly to a track bursting with respect. Brumbach's horn joins Erwin for other wonderful moments during Jelly Roll Morton's Sweet Substitute and Jimmie Cox's lowdown Nobody Wants You When You're Down And Out, but the pair work sheer magic for The Sheik Of Araby. Avery Parrish's After Hours gets a breath of new life as Helfer plays shimmering rolls and off-time thrusts, never losing the loping groove, and for Pooch Piddle, the grinder hands in a few more moments of utter joy. The title track and the stunning closer, Day Dreaming, show just how much talent can flow when imagination becomes part of the music.
Piano blues and boogie might well gain momentum again as long as Erwin Helfer keeps battering and caressing the keys, and thankfully, Steve Dolins (label honcho and co-producer) knows the importance of this style and Helfer's abilities. It's rather fitting that Erwin Helfer took the helm for The Sirens' debut in the CD age considering that it was one of his performances in the early 70's that ignited Dolins' interest in boogie woogie and inspired him to start the label while still a teenager, and whether or not some twenty years have passed since the label's initial entrance, the music remains timeless.
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This review is copyright © 2002 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.
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