Gospel piano takes center stage at the Sirens showcase | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Gospel piano takes center stage at the Sirens showcase


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Local label the Sirens has long upheld the tradition of Chicago blues piano, and in the past decade or so it’s begun exploring the neglected world of gospel piano as well. This show features three artists in the Sirens stable, two with new releases. Elsa Harris’s I Thank God is a mostly instrumental collection of well-traveled church standards featuring Harris on piano, Richard Gibbs on organ, and Curtis Fondren on drums. They sail through the likes of “Lord Don't Move That Mountain” (originally recorded by the late Inez Andrews, to whom this release is dedicated), “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” and “Down by the Riverside,” the absence of vocals emphasizing the quality of the musicianship. The lone vocal track, “Looking for Trouble,” is a bit of a shock; Harris sings with cocky authority, almost daring Satan to cross her path. Pastor Donald Gay, by contrast, puts his vocals at the center of his new On a Glorious Day. Gay’s previous recording, also on the Sirens, was a joint effort with his sister, pianist Geraldine Gay, who’s since passed on. Donald is still with us, though, boasting a strong set of pipes, and he’s working with a full band rather than a lone piano. (Two of his players are Gibbs and Fondren, also from Harris’s album.) Gay has one of those classic singing voices that resonates without seeming to shout, and adapting to a full rhythm section doesn't faze him a bit—he cuts loose without strain. The night ends with Chicago blues treasure Erwin Helfer, now 83. He’s played with everyone from Mama Yancey to Michael Bloomfield while establishing his own reputation as one of the finest blues pianists working.   v

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