(The Sirens Records)
Erwin Helfer, who turned 80 earlier this year, is a superb blues and boogie-woogie pianist based in Chicago. His style
is not just a throwback to 1930s blues and jazz but an individual voice that is creative within the genre. Last Call,
which hopefully will be far from his last recording, has plenty of variety taken from different sessions, all of it
The first ten selections, dating from 2014-16, feature Helfer as a solo pianist and, on three occasions, accompanying
the singing of either Ardella Williams or Katherine Davis while being joined by the supportive tenor-saxophonist
John Brumbach. Whether it is a solo boogie-woogie romp on “The Fives,” a thoughtful “Pennies From Heaven,” a
tender version of “Four O’ Clock Blues,” or “St. Louis Blues,” Helfer’s playing is timeless and classic.
A special bonus is the inclusion of three numbers on which Helfer works with the classic blues singer Mama Yancey.
Two duets are from 1957 while “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor” is with Yancey and a rhythm section in 1979.
Concluding the disc is a 15-minute interview with Helfer during which he talks about his life and his musical heroes.
This is a wonderful release, available from www.thesirensrecords.com, by Erwin Helfer, a major pianist who deserves
to be much better known.
Live At Birdland
Barbara Carroll, a veteran jazz pianist and cabaret singer, is 91 as of this writing and still performing in the New
York area. Live At Birdland, which was recorded in 2003 when she was 78, features Ms. Carroll in excellent form in a
trio with bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Joe Cocuzzo.
Originally a swing pianist, Barbara Carroll gained early fame in the 1950s as a very good bop-oriented pianist. She
began to sing more by the second half of the decade and, while never really on the level of her piano playing, her
vocalizing allowed her to cross over into cabaret and gain more fame.
Although there are several vocals on Live At Birdland, the focus is mostly on Carroll’s piano playing. She is heard in
top form on such numbers as “You And The Night And The Music,” “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” and “Mood
Indigo,” swinging with the trio. Even on the vocal numbers, she takes worthy piano solos.
Live At Birdland, which is quite enjoyable and available from www.barbaracarroll.net, is a fine example of Barbara
Carroll’s music during her later years.
Jacknife - The Music Of Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean (1931-2006) was a masterful altoist who had a sharp and intense sound all his own. While he grew up
playing bebop and hard bop, by the 1960s he was successfully exploring freer sounds, widening the range of emotions
that he expressed through his horn. In later years he became an influential teacher while never losing his very
Jacknife is a tribute to both McLean’s sound and the repertoire that he played in the 1960s. Altoist Steven Lugerner
has a tone reminiscent of McLean’s although without copying him too closely. Featured in a quintet with trumpeter
JJ Kirkpatrick, pianist Richard Sears, bassist Garret Long and drummer Michael Mitchell, Lugener performs three
McLean originals plus two songs by Charles Tolliver and one from Jack DeJohnette. The music is forward looking
hard-bop that is consistently passionate and forward-looking. Kirkpatrick hints at Freddie Hubbard and Tolliver, the
rhythm section is tight yet spontaneous, and Lugerner takes many rewarding solos. Highlights include “On the
Nile,” McLean’s catchy “Das Dat” and his “Melody For Melonae.”
Today’s jazz musicians would be well advised to explore some of Jackie McLean’s repertoire, much of which is rarely
recorded. Fans of mid-to-late 1960s jazz will certainly enjoy Jacknife, which is available from www.stevenlugerner.
Ready Take One
One of the most popular of all jazz pianists, Erroll Garner (1921-77) was self-taught, never learned to read music and,
while influenced by Earl Hines and the Count Basie Orchestra, always had his own sound. He sometimes would chord
slightly behind the beat with his right hand while his left was right on time, creating an echo effect. Garner, a
virtuoso who rarely looked at his hands while he played, created music that was so consistently joyful that his records
always sold well throughout his lifetime.
Ready Take One is the first “new” set of music by Garner to come out in some time. Recorded in 1967, 1969 and
1971, these performances show that Garner had continued to evolve through the years while still remaining
distinctive. The 14 selections consist of a new version of “Misty,” six other Garner compositions (none previously
recorded), and his versions of seven standards. The opening number, “High Wire,” has Garner playing over funky
rhythms and almost hiding his identity. However there is no mistaking his playing on “I Want To Be Happy,” “I’m
Confessin’” and a creative version of “Sunny” for anyone else. The new material also includes the well-titled “Wild
Music,” a beautiful ballad in “Back To You” and the uptempo “Chase Me” among the highlights.
Garner is joined by either Ernest McCarthy Jr, Ike Isaacs, George Duvivier or Larry Gales on bass, Jimmie Smith or
Joe Cocuzzo on drums, and Jose Mangual on congas. While the backup is excellent and Mangual in particular makes
his presence felt, Erroll Garner is virtually the whole show, playing brilliantly throughout. This highly
recommended set is available from www.legacyrecordings.com.
One of the finest groups in today’s jazz scene is any quartet that features tenor-saxophonist Eric Alexander and pianist
Harold Mabern. Alexander and drummer Joe Farnsworth, were students of Mabern’s when they were starting up and
all three are very familiar with each other’s playing. Bassist Bob Cranshaw, a 50-year veteran of Sonny Rollins’
band, has been at liberty since Rollins’ retirement and has known Mabern since the 1950s. The quartet creates plenty
of musical magic throughout Second Impression.
Alexander is a flexible saxophonist who can recall Stanley Turrentine a bit on soulful grooves, play with the
complexity of early John Coltrane on uptempo pieces, and display a mastery of bebop touched by Sonny Stitt. He does
all of that while sounding like himself. Mabern (who is now 80) plays classic hard bop in his own way while Cranshaw
and Farnsworth keep the momentum and creative ideas flowing.
Second Impression has nine superior performances including a warm and tasteful version of “So Many Stars,” the
hard-swinging “Blues For Mo,” a cooking “Secret Love,” Jimmy Smith’s “T-Bone Steak,” and Wes Montgomery’s “Full
House.” It features plenty of variety in moods, grooves and tempos along with top-notch playing from each of the all-
What’s not to love? Second Impressions is available form www.jazzdepot.com.
Bop & Ballads
The German Sonorama label (www. sonorama.de) specializes in putting out previously unreleased and often
unknown but rewarding sessions from top jazz artists of the past that were recorded in Europe. Among their CDs are
sets by baritonist Lars Gullin, bassist Oscar Pettiford, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, tenor-saxophonist Brew Moore,
and Susannah McCorkle among others.
Lucky Thompson was a major tenor-saxophonist who mixed together the influences of Coleman Hawkins, Illinois
Jacquet and Lester Young to form his own style. He had an up and down career commercially from the mid-1940s
until the early ‘70s although his playing was consistently rewarding. Bop & Ballads features him during two concerts
from 1959-60. He is joined by a fine European rhythm section that includes pianist Michael Naura and several
guests, best known of whom are tenor-saxophonist Hans Koller and guitarist Jimmy Gourley. Thompson, who had
begun doubling on soprano-sax in 1957 (joining Steve Lacy as virtually the only modern soloists on the instrument at
the time) performs four originals, an obscurity and such standards as “Yesterdays,” “Cherokee” and “Star Eyes.”
The music is 1950s bebop and it is a joy to hear Thompson stretching out as the main soloist. His ideas are in the
tradition yet unpredictable, displaying a warm tone and a fertile imagination.
Bop & Ballads is an important addition to the legacy of Lucky Thompson.
The Richard Sorce Project
Closer Than Before
While Richard Sorce is a fine pianist, his recordings put the emphasis on his compositions and arrangements. On
Closer Than Before, there are plenty of concise solos from altoist Mark Friedman, Fred Maxwell on trumpet and
flugelhorn, trombonist Brian Bonvissuto, Sorce and especially guitarist Rob Reich, but they are outgrowths of the
themes rather than wild flights.
Richard Sorce’s music is easy-listening, often Brazilian-flavored, melodic, joyous and pleasing. Such songs as “Minha
Alegra” which has the feel of a big band, the warm ballad “Closer Than Before,” the energetic “Never In A Million
Years” and the infectious “Sky High” are among the highpoints. Kerry Linder takes excellent Brazilian vocals on
three numbers including some wordless vocalizing on “Could This Be?”
Closer Than Before contains melodic music that is subtle and quietly creative. It is available from www.richardsorce.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Jake Shimabukuro has reinvented the ukulele. While it was popular in
the 1920s, the ukulele, which can be thought of as a small guitar, has been rarely played in jazz since. 15 years ago,
Shimabukoro showed that the ukulele could be a major part of modern settings.
Nashville Session, which teams him with bassist Nolan Verner and drummer Evan Hutchings, can be thought of as
featuring a new type of power trio. On a few of the selections, Shimabykuro plays an electric ukulele, sounding very
much like a rock guitarist. Other numbers (all but a classical piece are his originals) have Shimabukuro playing
tenor, soprano or baritone ukulele. Some of the selections are jazz-oriented including “6/8” and “Hemiola Blues” while
“Motown” and “Celtic Tune” find the ukulele virtuoso stretching himself into other genres of music.
While I wish that Jake Shimabukoro would record a full-length jazz CD someday (just to show that he can), Nashville
Sessions, which is available from www.jakeshimabukuro.com, is an excellent sampling of his brilliant playing.
During the past few years, Warren Wolf (who is 36) has emerged as one of jazz’s top vibraphonists. His style, while
influenced by Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, is creative within the modern mainstream of jazz and he has been
in great demand, often playing with Christian McBride.
Convergence generally mixes together Wolf’s originals with lesser-known songs by jazz artists. Most of the pieces have
Wolf playing with bassist McBride and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Pianist Brad Mehldau is featured on five of the 11
numbers while guitarist John Scofield on two. On two songs Wolf doubles on keyboards and he plays marimba on five
including an unaccompanied closing medley of “Stardust’ and “The Minute Waltz.”
The music is swinging, alternating between medium-tempo pieces and ballads. Throughout his third CD as a leader,
Warren Wolf is heard in top form, swinging and displaying his own personal voice on the vibes. Convergence
(available from www.mackavenue.com) is easily recommended as an introduction to his talents.
Afro Peruvian New Trends Orchestra
Corina Bartra is best known as a fine singer who blends together Peruvian rhythms and melodies with creative jazz to
create Afro-Peruvian music. Uniting Beats however is something much different than expected.
Uniting Beats features Corina Bartra the composer and arranger rather than the singer. She utilizes different lineups
on her two sessions (only three musicians are on both) with six or seven horns in the top-notch 10-11 bands. They
perform a dozen songs, ten of which she wrote. Going from straight ahead (including a swinging run through over the
“Impressions” chord changes) to danceable South and Latin American rhythms, the modern and adventurous music
is consistently colorful and lively. Some of the free-wheeling ensembles hint at the Mingus Big Band while others
have tighter charts that put a greater focus on her themes. The musicians are top-notch and the soloists are
uniformly excellent and passionate although a solo identification should have been included so one could determine
who takes honors!
The spirited ensembles, stirring rhythms and high-quality writing make Uniting Beats (available from www.
bluespiralmusic.com) a memorable listening experience.
Find Your Wings
Come Away With Me
During the past decade, Carol Bach-Y-Rita has been one of the top jazz and Brazilian music singers residing in
Southern California. Very skilled at blending together the two genres of music, she displays an attractive voice, is an
expert scat-singer and always improvises. Ms. Bach-Y-Rita is also not shy to take chances. On My House she interacts
in different settings with pianist Bill Cantos, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist John Leftwich, drummer Mike Shapiro
and (on one song) percussionist Dudu Fuentes. Included are duets with Shapiro (“Nature Boy”), Fuentes (their
original “Gardening With No Pants”), and Cantos (‘While My Lady Sleeps”). The singer never has trouble staying
perfectly in tune without the support of other instruments. Cantos’ “Morning Coffee” is witty, “You’d Be So Nice To
Come Home To” and “’Tis Autumn” swing easily, and “A Night In Tunisia” imagines Dizzy Gillespie in Brazil. It all
adds up to an easily recommended set (available from www.carolbach-y-rita.com) that features Carol Bacy-Y-Rita at
Born in Poland, Anna Danes grew up in Sweden and Canada, moving to San Diego in 2000. A few years ago, after
working as a lawyer and raising a family, she became a jazz singer. Find Your Wings is her second CD and is evidence
that she made the right choice. Ms. Danes has a haunting and quietly sensual voice, is a fine songwriter
(contributing six originals dealing with love including “Mr. OMG” and “Long Distance), and comes up with fresh
interpretations to standards. With excellent solos from pianist Rich Ruttenberg and fine support from bassist Trey
Henry and drummer John Ferraro, Anna Danes is in particularly excellent form on “I Will Wait For You,” “It’s
Crazy” and a medley of “Cry Me A River” and “I Want To Be Around.” Richard Shelton joins her in a vocal duet on
“That’s All” (the Brandt-Haymes composition, not the one by Sister Rosetta Tharpe), rounding out an enjoyable set
that is available from www.dfgrecordings.com.
Alison Lewis, who is based in Los Angeles, has already had an eclectic career. She toured for five years with an a
cappella group, has been a session singer, appeared onstage in films, and has sung jazz, blues, cabaret, r&b, gospel,
pop and folk music. Her seven-song EP Seven, which is jazz-oriented, is her recording debut as a leader. She is joined
on most selections by keyboardist Mitchel Forman, bassist Kevin Axt, drummer Ray Brinker and a few guests
including guitarist Andrew Synowiec on three songs. Alison Lewis has a strong, warm and flexible voice. She is able to
go effortlessly from shouting to a whisper. Her repertoire is quite varied, starting with the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and
progressing to “Cheek To Cheek,” Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and two of her bluesy originals. After “Midnight
Sun,” her program concludes with a surprisingly fresh version of ‘My Funny Valentine.” All in all, this is an
impressive debut, available from www.alisonlewismusic.com, that is well worth checking out.
It is no secret that great jazz talent can be found in virtually every country and most major cities. Helen Fenton from
Sydney, Australia has performed in a variety of settings during her career with her preferences being swing and
standards; she also leads the 16-piece Sydney Sound Big Band. Come Away With Me is her third CD as a leader. With
arrangements by Graham Jesse (who also plays tenor, alto and flute), she is joined by Jesse, two trombonists, a
trumpeter, vibes and a four-to-five piece rhythm section, Helen Fenton consistently engages in first-class singing.
Her voice is attractive, she improvises well while keeping the melody in mind, and she always swings. Highlights
include “How Little We Know,” “Come Dance With Me,” an exciting version of “I’ve Got Your Number,” the ballad
“Sure Thing” (her last note is particularly memorable), and a joyful version of “Yellow Days.” There are many
concise solos sprinkled throughout the set and the arrangements succeed at featuring Helen Fenton’s voice very well.
The final selection, “Tonight,” finds her singing a duet with her father Syd Gubbay via his 78. Come Away With Me
is available from www.helenfenton.com.au.
The Midiri Brothers Septet
Clarinetist Joe Midiri and vibraphonist Paul Midiri as the Midiri Brothers have long been major forces in keeping
swing alive. Joe Midiri can sound close to Benny Goodman whenever he likes and Paul can closely emulate Lionel
Hampton but they also display their own enthusiastic and creative personalities in their playing. Their latest CD,
Simply Splendid, has the twin brothers co-leading a septet also featuring trumpeter Dan Tobias, guitarist Pat
Mercuri, pianist Jeff Phillips, bassist Jack Hegyi and drummer Jim Lawlor.
In addition to his clarinet, Joe Midiri is also heard on tenor, alto (where he hints at both Johnny Hodges and Tab
Smith) and soprano on this set. He brings back the memory of Sidney Bechet on soprano during the classic “Si Tu Vois
Ma Mere.” The high-quality music is mostly comprised of swing standards along with three originals. Among the
many highlights are “Three Little Words,” the rarely-performed “That Old Gang Of Mine,” one of the hottest versions
ever of “On the Beach At Waikiki,” and a dramatic version of “There’s Something About That Name” In addition to
the Midiris, there are many concise and swinging solos from trumpeter Tobias (who very much sounds like he is from
the 1930s), Mercuri on his Charlie Christian-inspired electric guitar and pianist Phillips.
While Simply Splendid would have benefitted from a few more barnburners (many of the songs are taken at a relaxed
pace) and more of Joe Midiri’s clarinet, it is yet another excellent effort from the Midiri Brothers. All of their
recordings (available from www.midiribros.com) are easily recommended to swing fans.