The well-trained pianist | Music Review | Chicago Reader

The well-trained pianist 

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From the early days in the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans, blues and jazz have always provided both entertainment and an opportunity for personal expression. A kind of ecstatic longing that informs both the most joyful and the most mournful blues--as it did the spirituals that were the blues' immediate precursor--brings the two poles together.

It's becoming increasingly difficult, however, to find musical artists who are both entertaining and personally expressive. Although many veteran musicians can move effortlessly from gutbucket celebration to introspection, too often younger artists seem bent on casting themselves as either moody balladeers or funky partiers.

Pianist Erwin Helfer is a rare and valuable exception. Although Helfer is over 50, he has the enthusiasm and curiosity of a young musician. Equally steeped in early jazz tradition and postwar innovation, his music spans generations and genres. In his younger days in New Orleans, he sat at the feet of the many piano greats still living there; later, in Chicago, his mentors included the late Little Brother Montgomery, Blind John Davis, and Sunnyland Slim.

But Helfer is not an imitator. His knowledge of several generations of jazz and blues styles and his training in classical music and piano technique have allowed him to craft a distinctly personal style. Most important, throughout his entire repertoire of ballads, blues standards, and boogie-woogie barn burners, he maintains a personal connection with his audience.

The atmosphere at Andy's on a Friday night is not the most conducive to musical intimacy. The after-work, white-collar crowd is attentive enough, but unwinding is at least as important as sharing the intimate thoughts of a piano master. Many musicians in this situation would either compromise their integrity with some crowd-pleasing gimmick or jack up the energy level and volume to try to dominate the audience. Helfer does neither.

Playing as part of a quartet that included his regular drummer, Robert Covington, swinging gently behind him, Helfer conveyed both intimacy and musical integrity. He opened the show with a delightful romp on "Sheik of Araby," interpreted as a rollicking boogie with a playful hint of oompah in the bass line, over which Helfer sprinkled a dancing treble pattern. Jelly Roll Morton's "Sweet Substitute" followed in an exhilarating rendition buoyed by Covington and showcasing Helfer's ability to combine boogie-woogie exuberance with serious-minded dedication to jazz tradition.

Most Chicagoans know Covington as the driving shuffle drummer who works with Sunnyland Slim. Playing in Helfer's band, however, allows him to demonstrate a more subtle side. He lays down a brushy, propulsive straight four-four beat that complements the pianist's rhythmic and melodic explorations--Covington seems to have an intuitive understanding of Helfer's approach to improvisation.

The interplay between Helfer and Covington is heightened by Helfer's own profound rhythmic sense. As Covington strides along, deep in the pocket, Helfer delays his bass line just a fraction. Developed by drummer Fred Below in the early 50s, this technique (usually used by drummers) gives an added impetus to the rhythm. It's one of the most distinctive elements of Helfer's style, effective in his solo work and even more arresting when used with a percussionist. Helfer's music insinuates itself into a room; by the second or third number, a look around Andy's revealed tapping feet and attentive listeners where there had been only distracted conversation minutes before.

Just as Helfer brings a touch of gentleness to his up-tempo numbers, he gives his ballads an easygoing swing. Losing none of his power, he supplies melancholy standards with a rolling bass line and rippling treble runs. A few churchy blues chords and a touch of post-50s soul complement the pensive mood.

Saxophonist John Brumbach has brought a new dimension to Helfer's sound. Brumbach's style is like Houston Person's: he combines a raunchy, roadhouse honk with an underlying tenderness, which meshes perfectly with Helfer's musical personality. In this show he paired the lovely "Precious Lord" with the funky standard "Chicken Shack," and brought an equally soulful conviction to each. Especially impressive is his power in the lung-draining lower registers of the tenor sax; despite his enthusiasm for the primal R & B honk, he's also capable of melodic subtlety throughout the instrument's range, imbuing everything with a deep, sophisticated vibrato. The whiff of soulful grittiness Brumbach brings to a wide range of emotions puts him above the legions of R & B screamers.

This band would be perfectly capable of filling an evening with instrumentals, but Helfer augments his show with two vocalists, who also fuse celebration and sensitivity. One of them is Covingion; the other, Zora Young, is a Chicago veteran who's usually heard with more electrified bands but seemed surprisingly at home in the more traditional venue provided here.

Covington's good-natured approach to blues singing is well known: he interprets even the most bitter, downtrodden blues with a fatalistic grin and hope for tomorrow. Over the past several years his voice has deepened into a resonant, versatile instrument, and he's developed an onstage persona that allows him to deliver comfortably the ribald, aggressive lyrics that are a long-standing component of the blues. At Andy's, he got away with what may be the most arrogant, cynical lyric in all of modern blues--"If you're weak enough to leave me, I'm strong enough to let you go"--through the sheer force of his personality and the joyful affection he shows for his music and his audience. With his showmanship and ebullience, the lightheartedness he brings to even the bluest of blues, Covington has become an impressive vocal stylist just beginning to realize his potential.

Young fuses gritty west-side toughness with a sensuous vulnerability that's a welcome relief from the forced "red hot mama" posturing of some contemporary women blues singers. She provides a lithe, sly counterpoint to Covington's good-natured masculine strutting. Young's voice has matured remarkably in the last few years. A raw, unsubtle blues rasp has developed into a distinctive style midway between a sexy whisper and a full-bodied shout. She's a straight-ahead blues woman--not even remotely a jazz singer--but she knows enough to turn her jet down occasionally. Although her intonation still sometimes falters, her developing musical maturity is a welcome addition to the local scene.

The absence of electronic instruments in this aggregation might scare away some who feel that the only authentic Chicago blues is the guitar-oriented, post-50s elaboration on Delta themes popularized by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and their contemporaries. That's a pity, because Helfer and his band demonstrate another side of the Chicago tradition. When Waters was still an unknown sharecropper's son in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, Pinetop Smith was already inventing boogie-woogie, and Earl "Fatha" Hines was leading his seminal band at the Grand Terrace Theater on South Park. It's that lineage that Helfer is dedicated to continuing.

Helfer and the musicians he's gathered are a mix of tradition and exploration, raw-edged blues grit and sophisticated jazz sensibility. Helfer has gone through a number of bands over the years; this one is still developing an identity. But they've already got an impressive repertoire. Brumbach boots out a contemporary jazz standard like "Watermelon Man" with a sweaty, irreverent sense of fun accentuated by his grinding middle-register lines and ear-splitting mouthpiece squeals. Covington interprets chestnuts like "Blues in the Night" in a relaxed, easygoing croon, offsetting the world-weary lyrics with an affirmation that redeems the song's bitter, almost misogynistic message.

Augmented by Young's bluesy grit and a professionalism that allows them to remain unruffled in the face of the unexpected, this unit maintains a graceful, intimate communication with their audience, and their musical exploration makes that warm rapport even more exhilarating. Helfer and his group manage to embrace the two poles of the blues experience--they share a deep personal conviction as well as entertain--with sensitivity, enthusiasm, and grace.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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