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Jazzing It Up
Divid Helbock Plays John Williams

by Robin Kidson



Jazz often works by taking the music of another genre and then, for want of a better term, “jazzing it up” by applying some of its characteristic techniques: elaborations on the theme, improvisation, a syncopated beat. Jacques Loussier did it with the music of Bach; John Coltrane did it with Rodgers and Hammerstein (My Favourite Things); Charlie Parker did it with any number of popular Tin Pan Alley tunes…the list can go on and on.

“Jazzing it up” is rather a frivolous way of talking about a process which requires technical skill and musicality. It can also be a supremely creative act resulting in art of the highest quality. Indeed, what is produced sometimes arguably outclasses the original. It is whispered in some circles, for example, that the jazz treatment given to Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez by Gil Evans and Miles Davis on Sketches of Spain is a much more interesting piece of music than the original. (Needless to say, such comparisons did not go down well with Rodrigo but, as Evans said, it earned him “a lot of money”).

And now along comes the Austrian jazz pianist, David Helbock, who has recently released an album on the German ACT label which gives a jazz workout to the film music of John Williams. Williams is renowned for great sweeping symphonic scores which, at first sight, do notDavid Helbock playing john williams album readily lend themselves to a jazz treatment. However, it’s worth noting that he is actually a musician steeped in the jazz tradition. His father was Johnny Williams, a well-known American jazz drummer of the 1930s and 40s. John Williams studied music at a number of institutions including the Juilliard School in New York, supplementing his studies by working as a jazz pianist in clubs. Eventually, he ended up on the West Coast working as a session musician, then as an orchestrator and pianist in film studios. He was the music arranger and band leader on a number of Frankie Laine albums. He began composing music for films, forming an early and fruitful relationship with Steven Spielberg. John Williams went on to compose the music for many of the great blockbusters of the last forty years, winning on the way numerous Oscars and Grammys, and creating some of the most recognisable tunes of our times.

David Helbock has long been a fan of film and film music, particularly the film music of John Williams. “He’s been with me just about all my life”, he says. “I can still remember clearly how as a child I saw E.T. countless times and was excited about the extra-terrestrial being and his human friends. Or Jurassic Park. That was the first time I went to the cinema without my parents. And I won’t forget how my feelings would flicker between fascination and fear when I first saw the shark in Jaws. These were all deeply emotional and formative experiences for me, and it was always the soundtrack to the films that was at the root of them.”

Born in 1984 in a small village in Austria, David Helbock studied both classical and jazz piano. He has steadily built an international reputation playing both solo and with a trio. He also leads a group called Random/Control. Collaborations with the likes of Peter Madsen and Michael Mantler are another feature of his CV. In 2011, he received an Outstanding Artist Award from the Austrian government.

Helbock has developed a formidable piano technique. For an illustration (from his 2012 album, Purple),here he is giving Kiss by Prince a right old seeing-to:




David Helbock playing john williams is his latest album. He plays solo throughout 16 tracks which range far and wide over Williams’ illustrious career including the biggies like Jaws, Superman, Star Wars, and E.T. Most of the tracks are relatively short – the whole album lasts less than an hour.

The Kiss video shows how Helbock doesn’t just take a tune and “jazz it up” by a bit of improvisation here or the addition of a syncopated beat there – he takes the tune completely apart and virtually re-engineers it. This is what he’s done with the music of John Williams. “I’ve re-harmonised it”, he says, “I’ve used different time signatures and much more, so that my own voice can flow naturally into it. But despite all the alterations, the melody always stays the same and remains recognisable. Much of the process of adaptation was done intuitively, driven by the emotions that the films sparked in me. So I wrote down the main melodies, I watched the films, before finally developing my improvised versions on the piano and slowly extending them”.

This process can be seen at work in his treatment of the theme from Jaws, for example. The familiar ominous bass motif is still there together with the dramatic mood. But Helbock ever so slightly adds a jazz feel to the rhythm together with some underwater sound effects. David HelbockThe whole piece has an urgent feel and keeps building up to little sub-climaxes. It is short but completely riveting, keeping much of the original but, at the same time, bringing something new out of it.

There is more jazz in Helbock’s treatment of the Superman theme. The original was a sweeping triumphal march. Helbock turns it into something altogether more spiky with little hints of discordance – a robotic Superman, perhaps? Again, his virtuosic technique is on display – he is adept at setting up a complex, fiendishly fast riff with his left hand and then improvising on top of that with his right.

Another feature of Helbock’s playing is the way he conjures various unconventional sound effects from his instrument. “…for me”, he says, “the piano itself is an entire orchestra with a panoply of possibilities in sound. Even more so when I use various techniques of going inside the piano, i.e. damping strings with my hand, playing chords directly with my fingers on the strings, or using the piano frame as a percussion instrument”.

An example of how he uses these techniques can be heard on his treatment of the Theme From Schindler’s List. He plays the main sombre melody fairly straight (and movingly) but punctuates this with little interludes of discordance where his hand reaches into the piano’s inner workings. The sound that comes out is of the ominous ticking of a clock which fits right in with the mood of the piece. It is a small but effective device of which one suspects John Williams himself might approve.


Listen to Theme From Schindler’s List.




Helbock uses these unconventional sound effects sparingly. They are never put in for their own sake and always enhance the mood he is trying to create. For instance, several tracks running through the album are treatments of Williams’ Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter films. Helbock plays the theme in different ways with different rhythms creating very different moods: other-worldly, quirky, sinister, romantic. The final treatment is jazzy and upbeat with traces of ragtime and boogie-woogie. These moods are helped by the judicious use of Helbock’s repertoire of unconventional playing methods.


Here's a short video of Helbock playing one of his treatments of Hedwig’s Theme.




David Helbock playing john williams, then, is a most superior piece of “jazzing up”. Helbock clearly has the greatest respect for Williams’ work, never trying to upstage it. It would, of course, be difficult to upstage such a brilliant master of a tune. “Deep down”, says Helbock, "Williams is a great writer of melodies. They touch the heart profoundly, they release emotions….Rather than relying on sound effects or sonic ostentation, Williams puts his trust in the power of melody”.

An album of solo piano music can be a difficult trick to pull off. It says much for both Helbock’s technique and his imaginative powers that he keeps the listener’s attention throughout and does something which all the best adaptations do: make you go back to the originals with new ears and new respect. Helbock has brought things out of John Williams that you never guessed were there.

Click here for more information about David Helbock on his website. Click here for details and samples of the album.

David Helbock is playing at Pizza Express in London on 18th November 2019 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.


David Helbock


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