CD review

John Helliwell – “Ever Open Door”

John Helliwell – Ever Open Door
(Challenge Records CR73511. CD Review by John Bungey)

When you’ve spent a good part of your career schlepping round the world’s enormodomes with those giants of hook-heavy pop-rock Supertramp (Princess Di’s favourite band) you’ve earned the right to dabble in the side-projects of your choice. For the genial Yorkshire-born saxophonist John Helliwell these have included the Super Big Tramp Band, who inject a brassy swing into the Logical Song, Take the Long Way Home, et al. And now here’s Ever Open Door with Helliwell’s tenor or clarinet joined by a string quartet and electric organ. This unconventional but attractive line-up plays a mix of ballads, folk songs and the occasional Supertramp oldie – a dozen “tear-jerkers” as Helliwell dubs them with a couple of unbilled add-ons that I suppose you could call an encore.

The sonic combination is beguiling – Helliwell’s clear-toned playing amid the soft undulations of the Singh String Quartet and the discreet swell of John Ellis‘s Hammond. It’s a gentle bath of sound that’s soft-edged but not schmaltzy – genre-fluid music that glows happily either in the background or foreground.

Helliwell’s poptastic past is reflected on the opening track, If Everyone Was Listening. The plaintive Roger Hodgson song from Crime Of The Century is faithfully reprised on clarinet with spare organ chords giving way to pulsing strings as the tune unfolds. Rather than soloist and backing band, this is an ensemble performance with violins often taking centre stage in all of Andy Scott‘s arrangements.

Peter Gabriel’s Washing of the Water – again on clarinet – sounds like a lovely old English hymn (with a brief, red-blooded diversion into a Southern baptist church). On The Lads In Their Hundreds organ and strings improvise around the pretty folk tune, inspiring a gorgeous solo from cellist Ashok Klouda.

Helliwell grew up a fan of Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins before the siren call of pop came but he’s a polite soloist, not given to anything remotely like jazz fireworks. The closest he comes to slipping the leash is with some bluesy tenor wailing on the Rick Davies-composed title track.

When the string players get a chance to kick off their shoes, as on It Seemed That Life Was So Wonderful (another Supertramp reference there), there’s real zest in the playing. It tantalisingly suggests another looser, more fiery album entirely. But that clearly wasn’t the record Helliwell sought to make. This is music as balm to the soul, sweet-natured, soulful “easy listening” – and yes, that’s a compliment.

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