David Helbock: Playing John Williams

review helbock x1 cong

Austrian jazz pianist David Helbock loves John Williams, as do we all (even if we don’t know it). Helbock’s problem is to make the music we know inside out sound fresh, and the music we don’t know sound interesting.

As Helbock says, the music in the films is often “magnified onto a grand scale”, and fully orchestrated, however basic the melody, although that melody might be ingrained into our souls.

He likes Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter, as it’s on four times. Once — the opening track — is nicely ethereal as Helbock applies his fingers to the piano strings (possibly muting, probably plucking). Take two of Hedwig’s Theme is beautifully simple, the delicate sound of a music box. Take three is a sombre, classic renditions, shades of a stark Russian composer, slow and deliberate. Take four is pure jazz.

In some songs he masks the famous melody well, including ET, as he wraps up the melody in a busy jazz tune. Similarly the Superman March, a song so well-known it’s cliched, the melody only emerging from a groovy, bluesy jazz riff. On the other hand, the Star Wars theme is laid bare, the opening slow and gentle before a more aggressive jazz section and a moment of (we think) boogie woogie before it slows down; he adds echo by hitting something on the piano, presumably the Death Star going kaput. The latter half is lovely but complex lounge jazz.

There’s not much he can do with Jaws, except add creepy fish sounds (sliding his fingers on the strings, perhaps) and he probably sticks closest to the original for this, adding some jazz flourishes, balancing the famous, bassy melody.

The songs we are not so familiar with work less well (our fault), where the playing around the melody sounds a little too busy — if you don’t know the song, you want the melody he’s trying to disguise. Having said that, Escapades from Catch Me If You Can is really good, thanks to some proggy jazz fusion moments The playing is superb and it’s an interesting CD.

Fans of John Williams might rail against Hedwig quadrupled but film score buffs and fans of expressive but fundamentally easy listening jazz should enjoy this.
The cover art is by Rainer Fetting, Der Pianist, 1983. This is out on ACT, 9764-2.

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