Hats off to Helbock

Jazz pianist arrives from Austria to play John Williams scores in Tel Aviv.

David Helblock will play his singular readings of John William's music, solo, next week in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: LYNHAN BALATBAT)
David Helblock will play his singular readings of John William's music, solo, next week in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: LYNHAN BALATBAT)
Musicians often talk about the sounds they have in their head. In David Helbock’s case, judging by his headgear, that is patently the case. The 35-year-old jazz pianist will be coming here from Austria next week to perform at the Terminal 4 venue in Tel Aviv (November 27, 8:30 p.m.).
Musicians of all disciplines need to have some sort of stage presence in order to draw their audience into the whys and wherefores of their craft. Sometimes that can be enhanced by visual embellishments. Rock and pop music have been using jaw-dropping aesthetic effects for many a year now, and the odd jazz musician has been known to up their appeal ante with some catchy complement to the onstage getup. Dizzy Gillespie, for example, had a weird looking trumpet, not to mention his incredibly puffed out cheeks, although that was simply down to anatomical malleability. And there was, of course, the mercurial Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who made a habit of playing three wind instruments at the same time, some of them homemade.
Helbock’s “prop” comes in the form of a large black and white crocheted kippah-like headpiece which clearly and unequivocally denotes his instrument of choice. There is no missing the black piano keys on the white textural backdrop. Nice touch.
But, of course, musicians are primarily there to make pleasing, appealing, compelling sounds and Helbock does that pretty well. Last month, I caught his act at the Salzburg Jazz and the City Festival, playing his singular readings of John Williams’s music, solo. He will perform the same material here. The auditorium was jam-packed, and the audience duly riveted.
So, why Williams? What is there about the oeuvre of the 87-year-old iconic composer with such scores as Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusader, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in his portfolio, not to mention 24 Grammys, five Oscars, seven BAFTAs and four Golden Globes to his name.
It seems that visuals did their part here, too.
“Of course I saw all the big blockbusters as a child,” Helbock says. “He did the music for most of the Steven Spielberg films, like E.T. I really loved them. I grew up with them.”
While the youngster was more taken with the narrative and images of the films themselves, the soundtracks also sat tight in his developing musical consciousness. Eventually, he got around to doffing his derby to Williams oeuvre.
“We did a CD with my trio, in 2016, called Into the Mystic,” he says, noting a previous foray into cinema-fueled compositions.
When Helbock goes for something, he apparently gets really stuck in. He took the project very seriously, and did plenty of digging into the field.
“That’s how I approached Star Wars,” Helbock adds. “First I was a big Star Wars fan, and I studied all of Lucas’s work. It is really deep, especially the first three movies. There are a lot of elements from mythology.” That provided the pianist with fertile ground for various musical projects, including the one he will be feeding off here. “That’s how I got to the solo John Williams CD. But I came from the stories from the films first, before I got into the music.”
AS BEFITTING jazzy endeavor, Helbock does not churn out the scores in question as is, although he proffers us plenty of points of reference, to keep us on board.
“I decided to take the famous pieces, famous songs. I wanted to play with the audience, who maybe recognize a song, and I don’t tell them what it is. Then they may think ‘ah, I know that’, then they wonder what it is,” he says. That’s a pretty efficient way of drawing your listeners into your unfolding onstage continuum, and one which hopefully will deliver at Terminal 4 next week.
Helbock first placed his infant hands on the ivories at the age of six. It was a natural development for the lad. “My father is a musician too,” he says. “He is a classical guitar player and teacher. And he also plays jazz saxophone.”
Like the rest of us, Helbock’s initial disciplinary habitat was of a classical nature, although he started investigating other sonic possibilities pretty quickly.
“My first teacher at the music school was pretty open,” he says. “We did some pop songs, Beatles and all kind of stuff. I was lucky with that teacher.”
Helbock maintained that fortuitous streak: “When I went to the conservatory, and started classical music there, I had a really great teacher from Hungary [Ferenc Bognar], and we did Bela Bartok and stuff like that.” That naturally led into areas of folk music too.
Happily, his path later crossed that of New York-born jazz pianist Peter Madsen, who relocated to Austria. Madsen became Helbock’s teacher and mentor and, later, friend. That helped keep Helbock’s artistic vistas stretched. “I think Peter has played, in Europe, with the most different jazz artists. He played with [late legendary saxophonist] Stan Getz – really straight-ahead and out there, and everything.” Not a bad creative font from which to imbibe: “He was the perfect teacher.”
AS HELBOCK developed his jazzy sensibilities, he was naturally drawn to his fellow instrumentalists. Last year, he took the opportunity to pay tribute to some of the pianists who have fired his imagination over the past 30 years or so.
“The CD I did before, called Tour d’horizon, with another trio of mine (the Random Control threesome) I really dedicated to really famous standards played by the pianists who inspired me – Bill Evans is one, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock – I think the first CD I ever bought for myself was a greatest hits by him. And of course [Austrian-born] Joe Zawinul and Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk is very important.”
He had some help along the way: “A lot of that is thanks to Peter Madsen who showed me all of those pianists. Actually, Hancock and Zawinul I knew before, but he introduced me to a lot of that.”
That’s quite a who’s who from the jazz piano pantheon, and reflects Helbock’s own sweeping reach of styles and approaches.
“I have two different trios,” he notes. “One is a normal piano trio, with drums and a bass ukulele instead of a bass. That’s now been going for seven years. And I have another trio, with two horn players. We have almost 20 instruments because one guy plays all the saxophones, flutes, clarinets and stuff. The other plays all the brass instruments – tubas, sousaphone, trombone, trumpet. That is working for 11 years now.”
Keeping a band together, which is quite a rarity in 21st century jazz, offers the leader the inestimable boon of knowing his sidemen intimately, and being able to trust them when a whim takes him, or one of the others, off on some free-flowing musical departure. That also helps to keep the listener/spectator engaged.
Playing solo is an entirely different kettle of fish. On the one hand, it allows the player complete freedom to do as he or she wishes, as and when. But it also comes with a heavy responsibility. There’s nowhere to hide, no one to hide behind while the soloist seeks a fresh flight of fancy.
Judging by Helbock’s latest release, Playing John Williams – Piano Works XIV, which came out on the ACT label in August, and his performance in Salzburg last month, the Terminal 4 crowd is in for a rare treat.
For tickets and more information: https://eventbuzz.co.il/lp/event/helbock, https://barakmusic.com/helbock, (054) 477-1774 and https://www.terminal-4.co.il/