Album Review

David Helbock – ‘The New Cool’

David Helbock – The New Cool
(ACT Music, 9927-2. Album review by Adrian Pallant)

David Helbock is clearly a guy who is difficult to pigeonhole, his Random Control Trio project, for example, often involving a complex array of instruments on stage to present his own music and almost comedic reinterpretations at the edge of unpredictability.

2014 release ‘Think of Two’ refashioned Thelonious Monk and Hermeto Pascoal; 2016’s ‘Tour de Horizon’ saw him take on Joe Zawinul, e.s.t., Duke Ellington; and more recently, a solo piano album focused on the movie works of John Williams (Star Wars, Harry Potter et al.). But the Austrian-born artist says that for new trio album The New Cool, with trumpeter Sebastian Studnitzky and electric guitarist Arne Jansen, he decided to pare things down: “It is more about emotions … the most important thing in music”.

It’s his abiding eclectism which appeals throughout a recording in which Helbock, alongside his own compositions, again cherry-picks whatever he feels is ripe for exploration, including the music of Benny Golson, Frédéric Chopin, Jack Bruce (Cream) and Cyndi Lauper. The trio’s examination of such a range, involving subtle use of electronics, delivers an enticing and often dramatically atmospheric programme that freely drifts between jazz, rock … and, yes, a strong semblance of TV/movie soundtrack.

The arrangements can steer far from the originals’ recognised paths, as with pop classic Time After Time. Here, the pianist buries those usually distinctive semitonal phrases in a murky, subdued minor-key landscape as breathy, intervallic trumpet and misty textures descend, Escher-like, into Helbock’s throbbing bass-piano prelude, and towards a rock-heavy climax. Cream’s anthem I Feel Free, too, is shrouded in mystery, its Sixties bop replaced with slow, sinisterly shade, Studnitzky’s wandering trumpet only vaguely quoting the vocal line. Even Benny Golson’s smooth jazz classic, I Remember Clifford, is punctuated with pools of dramatic uncertainty – all the while, it feels like Helbock is working with imagery, creating a screenplay.

Original compositions complement such divergent impressions, Helbock’s Pandemic of Ignorance impressionistically suggesting rising alarm through a measured, syncopated piano groove which periodically ascends, though seemingly reaches a nebulous resolution; and continuing this topical theme, the prepared (muted) piano and subtle trumpet reverie of Studnitzky’s Korona Solitude #1 appears to reflect on the global situation with sorrow. Pitch-bent lead guitar and echoic trumpet in Helbock’s key-slamming Truth is interspersed with more jazz-intoned meanderings, a mood shared by the ‘opening-title’ anticipation of his Solidarity Rock, while tranquil Hymn for Sophie Scholl (commemorating the young anti-Nazi activist executed in World War II) sensitively pairs reverberant trumpet and piano.

An especially creative reimagining of Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, Op. 24, No. 4 sees Helbock retaining its forlornness, yet basing it around a quiet, muted-string piano pulse over which smoky trumpet and pedalled guitar enhance its melodic beauty. Jansen’s dreamy On the Shore – a feature for the guitarist and the trumpet of Studnitzky – is also moved along by Helbock’s percussive bottom-end piano, while crooning Matt Dennis’s Angel Eyes, from the late 1950s, becomes an engaging funk/soundtrack fusion which momentarily pauses to reference the original’s jazz-bar aura. Finally, Peter Madsen’s Surrounded by the Night (from saxophonist John Tank’s ‘Canadian Sunset’ album on which he appears) is painted in Helbock’s typically dusky colours, dull-thudding to low piano and whispering with vaporous trumpet and guitar.

The New Cool is an atmospheric, often ruminative trove whose pictorial edginess points in particular to an appreciation of rock, pop, jazz and filmic storytelling. Lauper, Chopin, Bruce and Dennis (now, there’s a collaborative image!) are particular highlights.

Released on 26 March 2021 at ACT Music.

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