Erwin Helfer Helps 'Celebrate The Journey' With The Chicago Boogie Ensemble

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. 2020's COVID lockdown was hard on Chicago pianist Erwin Helfer, a lifelong student and also a teacher of early jazz and blues piano styles. His early mentors included hometown pianist Clarence Lofton and Sunnyland Slim and New Orleans' Billie Pierce. Last year, just before the lockdown and the temporary depression it brought on for him, Helfer recorded a jam session with some Chicago pals. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's very old school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERWIN HELFER AND CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE'S "BIG JOE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Erwin Helfer at the piano in early March 2020 at age 84 - his keyboard touch, his economical phrasing, the whole feel of his music connect this white conservator of blues and older jazz styles with African American piano masters long gone. There aren't many left who do what Helfer does with such unshowy authority.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER'S "BIG JOE")

WHITEHEAD: Erwin Helfer doesn't carry his knowledge like a burden. He has some fun with it, as on a jam session with some bluesy buddies heard on his album "Celebrate The Journey." Most selections pull him away from straight blues. His four helpers, billed as the Chicago Boogie Ensemble, play bass and drums and twin tenor saxophones. But you wouldn't mistake their jam for a modern jazz session, not when they call tunes so old they're mostly claimed by Dixielanders, like Irving Berlin's first hit from 1911, a syncopated song with a bare hint of the blues, "Alexander's Ragtime Band." That's John Brumbach on tenor sax.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER PERFORMANCE OF IRVING BERLIN'S "ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND")

WHITEHEAD: A couple of other tunes Erwin Helfer and friends play come from the 1920s, "St. James Infirmary" and "'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The youngest oldie on Helfer's new album is Sonny Rollins' "Doxy" from the early 1950s, and even that shares its chord sequence with the 1924 hit "How Come You Do Me Like You Do?"

"Doxy" shows how blues and jazz musicians may approach the same material rather differently. Helfer roots his solo in his own bluesy idiom. He doesn't improvise in long lines as modern jazzers typically do.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER PERFORMANCE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "DOXY")

WHITEHEAD: Skinny Williams on tenor there with a little gospel saxophone rasp in his tone, backed by Lou Marini on bass and Davide Ilardi on drums. There are more gospel echoes from Erwin Helfer's crew when they play an evergreen spiritual recorded by blues musicians, Dixieland bands and some jazz modernists, "Down By The Riverside" - John Brumbach on saxophone again.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER'S "DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE")

WHITEHEAD: Erwin Helfer quoting there from Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud," just as he sneaks bits of the same composer's "Blue Monk" and "Misterioso" into other solos here. Monk tunes aren't exactly new music, but they're a little more modern than the pre-World War II styles the leader favors. He may be old school, but it's not like he lives in a cave. For Erwin Helfer, vintage piano dialects are living traditions, not museum exhibits. Sincere thanks to him for helping to keep those traditions alive and for passing that knowledge on.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER'S "POOCH PIDDLE")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Celebrate The Journey" by Erwin Helfer and the Chicago Boogie Ensemble.

On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about the most far-reaching anti-poverty program enacted by Congress in decades. We'll speak with The New York Times' Jason DeParle. He says the expanded child tax credit included in the stimulus bill will provide monthly checks for millions of families and cut child poverty by 45%, though it's unclear whether the program will last beyond the pandemic. I hope you can join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER'S "POOCH PIDDLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.