Watching Chicago’s Erwin Helfer charm a packed room at JazzFest Berlin last year, I saw him in a new light: as a successor to Art Hodes, another white conservator of pre-bop African-American piano styles that would be lost if someone hadn’t made a point of fixing them in mind and under the fingers. Helfer long ago turned his blues and boogie influences–gleaned from Jimmy Yancey, Clarence Lofton, Sunnyland Slim, and others–into a lively, durable, personalized sound. He’s too discreet to shout, but he does blow the dust off the venerable licks, and his stage manner is pleasantly antiquated: he’s a throwback in a good sense. The Sirens label, of Highland Park, likes him a lot–he appears on five of their six releases. His I’m Not Hungry but I Like to Eat–BLUES! featured four fine duets with tenor saxophonist John Brumbach; the amiable new St. James Infirmary pairs Helfer with tenorist Skinny Williams. Jazz trained at Berklee, Williams has been playing Fridays at Joe’s Be-Bop Cafe for a few years now, honing his jaunty timing and robust, billowing tone. He doesn’t wander too far from the written melodies, though, more like a blues-blues guy than a jazz-blues guy. The selections split the difference between the cousin genres, with “Trouble in Mind” and “See See Rider” set alongside “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and a boogie-woogie version of Jimmy Smith’s “Back at the Chicken Shack.” With a few exceptions all are as well-worn as back-of-the-drawer gym socks, but it’s fun to hear Helfer on out-and-out jazz tunes like Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Even as he faithfully sketches Waller’s buoyant stride with his left hand, his right keeps drifting back toward a blues tickler’s pet cadences, short phrases, and ringing sevenths. You know where his heart really lies. Saturday night is the CD release gig; the night before, Helfer plays solo, as he does the first Friday of every month. Friday, August 1, and Saturday, August 2, 9:30 PM, Katerina’s, 1920 W. Irving Park; 773-348-7592.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.