In the 30s and 40s, Chicago was swimming with boogie-woogie and blues pianists–the big fish in that big pond included greats like Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Big Maceo Merriweather, and Jimmy Yancey. But the scene’s been drying up for decades, and Sunnyland Slim’s passing in ’95 has left folks like Pinetop Perkins and Erwin Helfer as the last bearers of the torch. Now in his mid-60s, Helfer’s been playing his own driving, delightful style of barrelhouse since the 50s, when he studied with blues-piano innovator Cripple Clarence Lofton; in turn Helfer mentored the young Myra Melford, who absorbed his influence into her expansive new-jazz palette. In 1964 he cut Rough and Ready (Testament), a series of duets with fellow ivory tickler Jimmy Walker, over 30 years his senior, and with bass giant Willie Dixon. The album’s a certifiable classic, but Helfer hasn’t exactly recorded prolifically since: to my knowledge, the rest of his catalog consists of a couple solid grooves released on the Flying Fish and Red Beans labels in the 80s. But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to hear him play: Helfer keeps up a handful of regular gigs, and every Saturday night for almost a year he’s been joining forces with tenor saxophonist John Brumbach for an intimate, laid-back teahouse set. On down-tempo tunes Brumbach’s sound is ringing and glorious, and on swinging material he’s gutsy, even downright funky, thanks no doubt to a stint in George Clinton’s horny mob. The duo’s sets tend to be marked by a gentle push and pull: the tunes Helfer calls are typically boogie-woogie, stride, blues, or ragtime, and it’s fascinating to hear what he does with the hard-bop nuggets Brumbach sometimes suggests. The venue is tiny and fills up fast, so I recommend getting there early. Saturday, 9 PM, Villa Kula, 4518 N. Lincoln; 773-728-3114. Helfer also plays every week at Joe’s Be-bop Cafe & Jazz Emporium and the California Clipper; see jazz and blues listings for details.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/James Fraher/Jim Newberry.