The Chicago Jazz Festival official gets under way next Thursday (keep your eyes peeled for our festival guide in next week’s paper), but a slate of activities beginning next Monday has extended the event to a weeklong celebration. On Monday the Bernard Tavernier film ‘Round Midnight (for which tenor saxophone legend Dexter Gordon earned an Oscar nomination for best actor) will screen at the Chicago Cultural Center at 6 PM as part of a program dubbed “Dexter @ 90,” which will also feature remarks by Gordon’s widow, Maxine. Earlier on Monday PianoForte will kick off a three-night series of solo piano concerts with a 5:30 PM set by Jim Baker. Tuesday’s concert will feature Justin Dillard, while on Wednesday it’s Erwin Helfer.

Helfer, of course, is a genuine Chicago treasure—one of the greatest living exponents of boogie-woogie and old-fashioned blues piano, and one of the most modest, affable human beings on the planet. Earlier this year he released a typically refined and entertaining album called Erwin Helfer Way (Sirens)—the title refers to the stretch of Magnolia Avenue he lives on, which was christened for him by the city’s honorary street-naming program in 2006. The recording features Helfer in a variety of instrumental settings with his regular cast of collaborators. There are raucous, hard-driving blues like the opener “Chicken Shack,” with dueling tenor saxophones played by John Brumbach and Skinny Williams—bassist Lou Marini and drummer William “Bugs” Cochran, a onetime member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, are the rhythm section throughout the record, save for some solo pieces and a pair of duets with fellow keyboardist Barrelhouse Chuck—as well as a version of the Horace Silver tune “The Preacher,” where Helfer and company vibrantly flavor the hard bop with some stride, swing, and R&B. The pianist takes some concise solos on these band tracks, and he also shows what a peerless accompanist he can be.

But for me the best moments on the album are the three tracks when Helfer is all alone, where one can bask in the interplay between his right and left hands. There’s the driving barrelhouse bass line he inserts beneath his jaunty take on the standard “Exactly Like You,” and the leisurely pace he takes on the early jazz piece “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” played with his usual elegant phrasing. Below you can check out the Helfer original “Within,” a lovely ballad that captures his mastery of the blues and showcases his lyric tenderness.


Today’s playlist:

Missy Mazzoli, Songs From the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt (New Amsterdam)
Annie Gosfield, Almost Truths and Open Deceptions (Tzadik)
Dell, Westergaard, Lillinger Feat. John Tchicai, Dell, Westergaard, Lillinger Feat. John Tchicai (Jazzwerkstatt)
Kevin Drumm, Relief (Editions Mego)
The Swifter, The Swifter (The Wormhole)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.