David Helbock – Austrian Syndicate
(ACT 9974-2. Album review by Jon Carvell)
If you’ve been following David Helbock over the last few years, you might have heard him in his much-travelled duo with French vocal star Camille Bertault, or bringing what Chris Pearson of The Times has called his “accomplished, melodic playing and a leavening sense of absurdity” to a guest appearance on the most outrageous track of the Jazzrausch Bigband’s 2021 album techné (REVIEW), or you’ll have heard his pensive prepared-piano take on the slow movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 from the 2016 trio album “Into the Mystic” (his most-streamed track). Even by modern standards, Helbock’s range and his breadth of musical interests are impressive.
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The Austrian pianist’s latest undertaking, on which he also has the producer credit, is Austrian Syndicate, a passion project which pays tribute to his much-celebrated keyboard compatriot, Joe Zawinul. Zawinul of course had his own Syndicate and when explaining his choice of name once said, “you are not just in a band, you are in a family.” This sense of interconnection is important for Helbock too, given the album has a major role for his own former teacher and long-time mentor, pianist Peter Madsen.
For all of its more contemporary moments, this disc is rooted in archetypal jazz fusion. “Ballad for Schönenbach” for instance could comfortably sit alongside “A Remark You Made”, from Weather Report’s 1977 classic Heavy Weather. Helbock’s Vangelis-style synths float over piano lines from Madsen in an elegant slow burner, and the result is a feeling of lineage continued rather than simple pastiche.
Helbock also has a formidable list of guest artists on this album, not least funk trombonist extraordinaire Fred Wesley. Wesley, who has just turned 80, is still playing with a sense of groove that few others can rival, and his solo on “Crimson Woman” is the dictionary definition of ‘in the pocket’.
Elsewhere, “Nuyorican” employs a careful interplay of synth melody and piano montunos, whilst the bass of Raphael Preuschl, drums of Herbert Pirker and percussion of Claudio Spieler dive into Puerto Rican rhythms with panache.
Given the scope of the project, it’s perhaps not surprising that some elements work better than others. The closing arrangement of Mozart’s “Komm, lieber Mai und mache..”, featuring Maria Joao, sounds more suited to the credits of a Japanese game show, but even fusion’s greatest exponents have often sailed close to the winds of good taste (Part 2 of Chick Corea’s “El Bozo” anyone?).
The most refreshing thing about this album is its lack of artifice. Austrian Syndicate is heartfelt, technically faultless and not constrained by any narrowness of aesthetic.