As he sat down behind the piano at the Hungry Brain on May 16, the 81-year-old Chicago pianist Erwin Helfer introduced himself to the 20 or so people in the club. “This is the Erwin Helfer trio — me, the piano and the stool,” he said, displaying his wry sense of humor. Helfer, who plays a free show at 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday at the Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont Ave., opened his set with the classic “St. James Infirmary Blues,” before offering up a delightful sample of the various styles he has played over the decades — jazz, blues and boogie-woogie — along with charming stories and illuminating explanations of the music. Remarking on how attentive and appreciate the small audience was, Helfer said: “I’m not used to playing in places as sophisticated at this. I feel like I’m in Europe.”
I’ve written before about my friend Jason Shanley, who performs guitar and electronic music under the name Cinchel. He is part of a new group called Mirror of Nature, which performed a cool set of improvised instrumental music on Jan. 7 at the Hungry Brain. Cinchel’s guitar, Mike Weis’ drums, Neil Jendon’s electronics and Keefe Jackson’s bass clarinet blended beautifully together into shifting sonic sculptures.
Chicago’s Hungry Brain hosts improvisational music every Sunday — jazz and other hard-to-define sounds — with help from the Umbrella Music organization. It’s a quirky little venue that feels like a Beatnik’s living room grafted onto an old-fashioned bar. This past Sunday (Sept. 18) the Hungry Brain hosted a rare local appearance by the esteemed Australian band the Necks. This group sticks with a formula — album-length pieces of music that build from a quiet motif to layers of shimmering sound and then subside back to silence — but it’s a formula with infinite possibilities, after all. The two sets they played Sunday proved that. The Necks did it all with piano, upright bass and drums, a fairly standard jazz combo arrangement that yielded far from standard results. At times, the oscillating patterns of the three instruments sounded electronic or orchestral, despite the apparent lack of special effects.