John Helliwell has been a member of the British band Supertramp since 1973. Helliwell’s saxophone playing largely determined the sound of successful albums like Even In The Quietest Moments (1977) and Breakfast in America (1979). Rodger Hodgson, one of the vocalists, left the band, but as a collective Supertramp never stopped. John Helliwell, the man of the witty announcements, now seeks the musical spotlights with Ever Open Door, an atmospheric instrumental album with saxophone, string quartet and Hammond organ.
Is the musing, melancholic music of this album your reflection on our times?
I like to listen to jazz, but when I play it myself, it shouldn’t be too fast. When I was thinking about the repertoire, I naturally ended up with these melodious ballads.
How did you come up with this unusual line-up?
About three years ago, I was asked to play the traditional ‘Waly Waly’ at a church wedding. The father of the bride said: “There will also be a string quartet performing that night.” It seemed like an interesting combination and I asked a good friend to write an arrangement for saxophone and strings. Afterwards, I was so happy with this collaboration that I wanted to make a whole album in this style. But one instrument was missing to hold it all together and that’s how I came up with the Hammond organ.
What do you want to say with the title?
It’s an inviting title, I’m always open to new musical ideas. When I selected the pieces for the album, I stumbled upon Rodger Hodgson’s song ‘If Everyone Was Listening’ in the Supertramp archives. We had two composers in Supertramp, so I also chose a song by Rick Davis: ‘Ever Open Door’. That became the title.
In his book De muze brengt mij, Dutch pianist Egbert Derix describes how you ordered an album from his website and that this digital contact led to some joint performances.
I remember that collaboration very well. Egbert asked me to come to the Netherlands for a series of performances, the last of which would be broadcast on the radio. Egbert immediately made clear that the budget was small, but I like playing jazz, especially with good musicians so I said yes. Shortly afterwards I was called by my Supertramp buddy Rick Davis who told me: “On this and that date we have a Supertramp concert in Paris. The week before, we are going to rehearse.” It turned out to be the same period and I answered: “I am afraid I can’t, I have a gig in Horst.” The fee of Supertramp would be about 25 times what Egbert could pay me for the whole week, but when I make an agreement, I stick to it.
When did you become interested in jazz?
Already in the sixties. At first I played the clarinet and I listened a lot to the jazz of those days. Supertramp’s music always had a certain jazz content. Most of the band members have a jazz background, but we are also clearly influenced by the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
How did the Super Big Tramp Band come about?
About three years ago I was invited by the Northern College of Music in Manchester. The programmer wanted to put together a Supertramp programme with the big band of the conservatoire. They had made beautiful arrangements and asked if I wanted to join in. It was a wonderful evening and it felt like we should do more. We play Supertramp songs without the vocals. The trumpets, trombones, saxophones and rhythm section give the whole thing an energetic drive. Making an album isn’t a blessing yet, every time we rented a studio, a new lockdown was announced. That the album will come is certain, the only question is when.
Ever Open Door
John Helliwell – Challenge Records
Ever Open Door: