I confess. For years now I’ve had a secret vice. A shameful habit I’m not at all proud of. It’s this - one of those cheesy CD’s of piano/sax duets. You know the type . . . two guys in tuxedos, who take timeless standards and play them in as bland a manner possible, all carefully calculated to be as inoffensive as . . . well, as beige.
The thing is, though, that one can’t really listen to a disc like that. As background accompaniment to other activities it’s fine. But there’s no musical meat, nothing stimulating or challenging enough to hold one’s interest. Still, there’s something about that sound, that perfect marriage between the breathy sensuality of the sax and the percussive potency of the piano that’s irresistible.
Happily, that disc is now a relic, and I need no longer hide my affection for music that combines romance and despair, sweetness and sorrow. There’s musical muscle aplenty and an abundance of ideas on “St. James Infirmary,” a disc that now holds an honoured and honourable place in my collection.
Skinny Williams came up in the jazz world of Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, and has worked with artists as diverse as Junior Wells and the Ohio Players. Erwin Helfer lives and breathes stride piano; he’s shared stages with the likes of Big Joe Williams and Mama Yancey. Both are Chicago-based, but by no means should one expect a straight-ahead blues session on this, their first (and hopefully not last) outing together. Together they cover gems from the Great American Songbook, from the title cut to ballads like “These Foolish Things,” from bouncy workouts such as “Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue” and “It’s Only A Paper Moon” to tender lullabies like “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Yet there’s a profoundly bluesy sensibility to everything they do, Erwin pushing proceedings along with a free-flowing and fluid urgency, Skinny gutsy and guttural here, wistful and dreamy there. Elsewhere there’s “Trouble In Mind,” Percy Mayfield’s immortal “Please Send Me Someone To Love,” and “See See Rider” on the blues side. Erwin’s affection for Fats Waller is evident with the inclusion of both “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin,” and the duo’s ballad artistry is showcased on “Stormy Weather.” There’s only one original, Erwin’s “Pooch Piddle” (which fits into the playlist quite nicely) and they wrap things up with an innovative “Chicken Shack.” Indeed, the two manage to put a fresh spin on every song, with liberal interpretations that nonetheless maintain a great deal of respect for what are, after all, masterful compositions to begin with.
The sound is well nigh perfect; The Sirens Records is a boutique label specializing in preserving classic piano music for posterity, and their care and attention to detail is amply evident. This one’s an absolute and unequivocal delight from beginning to end, and gets my very highest recommendation!
The Sirens Records
P. O. Box 1997, Highland Park, Il 60035-1997
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