3 new reviews
Blues never better at hands of 4 greats
“This is history we’re making tonight,” Barrelhouse Chuck told the crowd in HotHouse over the weekend, and he was not exaggerating.
Four of the city’s top piano players were marking the release of their exceptional new recording, “8 Hands on 88 Keys” (on The Sirens label), and they reminded listeners how deep this city’s blues piano-playing legacy runs.
To hear the 88-year-old Pinetop Perkins unfurl slow, rolling blues – his gravelly vocals accompanied by an orchestral keyboard style – was to savor the authentic sound of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen who influenced him in his youth. And when Perkins launched into up-tempo showpieces, such as Down in Mississippi, he played with a technical bravura that few keyboardists of his vintage could match.
Modern-day listeners may associate Every Day I Have The Blues with another great Chicagoan, the late Joe Williams, but Detroit Junior made it his own with the surging tempo and exuberance of spirit that are his trademarks. Moreover, there was soft-spoken sorrow in Trouble In Mind and self-deprecating humor in the classic If I Hadn’t Been High.
As if to underscore the continuity among several generations of Chicago blues players, Detroit Junior sang one number to the accompaniment of pianist Erwin Helfer in a tune the two men co-authored, Ain’t Nobody’s Business. The duo traded phrases as if they were in church, Detroit Junior’s declamatory vocals answered by Helfer’s exquisitely ornamented right-hand filigree.
Helfer played one of the most sublimely understated sets this listener has heard from him, the pianist more than once bringing the crowd to a hush. He made Avery Parish’s After Hours into a kind of blues rhapsody built on a lushly voiced chords and an unusually languorous tempo. There were palpable melancholy in Helfer’s rendition of 4 O’ Clock Blues and a ray of sunshine in a boogie version of Swanee River.
The youngster in the bunch, a middle-aged Barrelhouse Chuck held his own in exalted company. In one piece after another, Barrlehouse Chuck displayed a splendid, all-over-the-keyboard style and an uncommonly effective baritone voice. If his right-hand tremolos recalled Sunnyland Slim on It’s You Baby, his rumbling vocals lent gravity to blues anthems of Floyd Jones and Leroy Carr.
Helfer and Barrelhouse Chuck paired up to play at a brisker clip than one might have thought possible on an ebullient, two-piano version of Chicken Shack Boogie. Though the duet would have been more effective if both pianists were playing grand pianos, Barrelhouse Chuck drew plenty of thunder from an otherwise soft-spoken upright, the pianist shrewdly banging out two-fisted, high register chords whenever Detroit Junior paused for a beat or two.
In all, an exceptional night, Chicago-style.”
-Howard Reich, Tribune arts critic, Chicago Tribune Monday April 15, 2002
The Chicago label The Sirens has been issuing (or reissuing, as the case might be) compilations of piano blues and Boogie Woogie by the Windy City's leading exponents of that pianistic art. The cuts on this album come from a November 2001 session when the label gathered these extraordinary artists in the studio and turned them loose. The result is almost 50 minutes of the blues as heavy or Boogie Woogie as syncopated as the Chicago versions of these genres can get. Perhaps the last gathering of this many top disciples of the music in a studio came in 1976 when the same label gathered Willie Mabon, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Walker, Blind John Davis and the same Erwin Helfer for a session recently reissued as Heavy Timbre - Chicago Boogie Piano. The members of this group play and sing individually or in duet with another member. On "Miss Ida B" Barrelhouse Chuck Goering sings while Detroit Junior plays' the 88's. Detroit Junior does his thing with blues favorite "Ain't Nobody's Business What I Do" to the accompaniment of pianist Erwin Helfer. Helfer's speciality is the Boogie Woogie as he so dazzlingly demonstrates on his composition"Stop Time Boogie" recalling the Chicago genius practitioners of that style, Meade "Lux" Lewis and Albert Ammons. One of the top tracks is Detroit Junior's slurring version of "Staggerlee", the sad tale of what happens when there's disagreement on what the dice read in a crap game. The elder statesman of the group, Pinetop Perkins, appears on four cuts. He truly wrenches the heart and soul dry on "How Long Blues".
Every track on this album is a gem and serves to remind how this music can sound when played by those who were born with the music in their soul and in their hands. Highly recommended.
-David Nathan, www.allaboutjazz.com
If you're a big fan of piano blues like myself it's disheartening to see such a scarcity of new piano blues records. Thankfully the Chicago based The Sirens label has stepped in to issue a pair of excellent new piano blues CD's and a classic session from the mid-70's. Erwin Helfer's is an acknowledged Chicago master who despite a hefty reputation has recorded far too little. I’m Not Hungry But I Like To Eat– Blues! is an exceptional piano blues release and well worth the wait. Helfer is also featured on 8 Hands On 88 Keys a summit meeting of of great Chicago piano legends that in some ways is a sequel to Heavy Timbre recorded some 25 years earlier.
8 Hands On 88 Keys (great title) also features Helfer as well as Chicago veterans Pinetop Perkins, Detroit Junior and the the youngster of the bunch, Barrelhouse Chuck. While the Chicago piano blues scene is well past it's glory days it good to see these gentleman keeping the tradition alive and well. All the artists get to shine on their own as well as collaborating with one another. Barrelhouse Chuck may be the youngster but he's an impressive player and a very good vocalist shining on the Sunnyland number "It's You Baby" plus taking the vocals on "Pinetop's Blues" with Helfer playing piano and Roosevelt Sykes' "Miss Ida B." with Detroit Junior on piano. Detroit Junior has lived and played in Chicago for the past fifty years and is in fine form on soulful numbers like a remake of his 1960 Bea & Baby record "I'm So Unhappy", a great version of "Staggerlee" and a moving vocal performance on "Ain't Nobody's Business" with Helfer on piano. Helfer is showcased on the rollicking "Stop Time Boogie" and a sublime "4 O'clock Blues." At 88 Pinetop Perkins is rightly dubbed "the elder statesman of blues piano" and is featured on the set's final four cuts. Perkins has recorded solo only rarely making these sides especially noteworthy as he delivers beautiful laid back performances on "Grinder Man Blues", "How Much More" and "How Long Blues."
Heavy Timbre captures five legendary pianists at a "studio party" in 1976 and can be seen as a precursor to the above record. Once again Helfer is the common link on this session that features sides by Blind John Davis, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Walker and Willie Mabon. Blind John Davis was a ubiquitous name on blues records of the 30's and 40's playing with all the top Chicago artists such as Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson among others. Davis is in fine form whether on the stomping "Davis Boogie" or the wistful "I Almost Lost My Mind." Sunnyland Slim was another veteran of the Windy City playing for more than 50 years with just about everyone worth mentioning on the Chicago scene. Sunnyland's rumbling piano and powerhouse vocals are heard on typically solid numbers like his signature "She Got A Thing Goin' On" and "Gotta See My Lawyer." Willie Mabon had some genuine R&B hits for Chess in the 50's and remakes his 1952 chart topper "I Don't Know" and the classic Willie Dixon penned "Seventh Son" as well as the fine slow blues of "World of Trouble." Helfer is is heard on a pair of instrumentals including the storming "The Fives" and the under recorded Jimmy Walker is showcased on a pair of fine slow blues. As an added bonus are five newly discovered tracks that capture the artists in a relaxed, informal setting that make up in atmosphere for what they lack in sound quality. Sadly, of the five artists, only Helfer is still alive to carry on the tradition making this document all the more valuable.
While piano blues was once a healthy and thriving tradition it's sadly been marginalized in recent decades to be replaced with the cult of the electric guitar. These three CD's are first class piano blues records and show that there are still a few keeping the tradition alive. Sadly they also show how much we've lost of this once thriving tradition. You can find out more about The Sirens label by visiting their website at www.thesirensrecords.com
-Jeff Harris, WITR Radio 89.7 c/o Bad Dog Blues, Rochester, NY
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