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Skinny Williams & Erwin Helfer: St. James Infirmary (2003)

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Skinny Williams & Erwin Helfer: St. James Infirmary Chicago sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of rhetoric over New Orleans, Kansas City and New York as jazz focal points past and present. That's an egregious error and one that Skinny Williams and Erwin Helfer, two Windy City regulars, aim to redress. Together, they share the tools necessary to right the wrong and put their town back on the map front and center. Favoring a wide velvet tone completely at odds with his emaciated moniker, Williams fits squarely in the regal Chicago tenor lineage that stretches from Gene Ammons to Frank Catalano. Helfer’s encyclopedic grasp of blues piano ranges from stride through more modern strains of boogie and bop, and his nimble command of the ivories complements Skinny’s romance-ready sound.

The pair’s opening breakdown of “St James Infirmary,” that timeless anthem of the Jazz Age, sets an early high bar as Williams’ tenor, at once mournful and resplendent, distills the pain and pleasure of simply being alive. Helfer’s fingers etch dark chords that outline his partner’s extemporization, eventually drifting into a statement of their own saturated in elegant cerulean hues. A missing rhythm section of bass and drums isn’t even an afterthought. “Trouble In Mind” continues the winsome streak with Williams rolling out another lustrous emotion-laden rendition of the familiar theme and Helfer answering with cleverly uncluttered counterpoint.

And so it goes through most of the program as the duo turns in one superlative interpretation after another, taking shopworn standards from nearly three quarters of a century past, polishing them with loving improvisation and setting them gleaming in the window of the mind for all to admire. Other high water marks to these ears include the pair of Fats Waller pieces “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” On each Williams affects a royal Websterian rasp that laces Helfer’s lush comping in a comforting melodic afterglow and the pianist allocates space to show off his substantial stride chops.

Not ones to be totally stuck in the distant past, the pair also tackles Jimmy Smith’s Sixties soul jazz groover “Back and the Chicken Shack,” recasting it for their economical instrumentation in a manner that trades the organ grease of the original for a healthy dollop of stomping piano seasoning. The saxophonist even steps up for a booting series of bar-walking honks that goad Helfer into some his most unfettered playing of the session. Both men are something of an anomaly in today’s age of relentless hybridizations and rote exhumations of earlier glories. Their respect for the tradition is paramount and uniformly in place, but its tempered with playful personal touches that celebrate these songs not as museum pieces, but as living, breathing signifiers of jazz music’s enduring spirit.

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Track Listing: St James Infirmary/ Trouble in Mind/ These Foolish Things Remind Me of You/ Ain

Personnel: Skinny Williams- tenor saxophone; Erwin Helfer- piano. Recorded: December 21, 2001, Chicago.

Record Label: Sirens, The

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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