John Helliwell was one of the key members of Supertramp, joining the band in 1973, just before their amazing breakthrough album, Crime Of The Century (1974). He played saxophone and clarinet for the most part, but also contributed keyboards, percussion and backing vocals. On this album, which is more jazz-oriented, he restricts himself to tenor saxophone and clarinet. He is joined by John Ellis on Hammond organ and the excellent Singh String Quartet (Simmy Singh and Rakhi Singh, violin, Ruth Gibson on viola and Ashok Klouda on cello). Most of the arrangements are by saxophonist Andy Scott (London Saxophonic, Supertramp), and as the line-up suggests, we're in chamber jazz territory here.
The project came about when Helliwell was asked to perform the folk song Waly Waly at a wedding, with string quartet, and Helliwell asked Scott if he could come up with an arrangement. The piece has been included here, and it's easy to understand why it received such a positive reception.
The album opens with the Supertramp classic, If Everyone Was Listening, a song which impressed Helliwell when he auditioned for the band in 1973. The opening, with clarinet and organ, reminded me of John Surman, and when the strings come in, the violin takes the place of the vocal. The stately, elegant Lord Stackhouse was written by Andy Scott for Helliwell several years back, and is another highlight, with a delightful melody. Del Soldato In Trincea was composed by the excellent Paulo Fresu for a 2014 film, and is a tribute to fallen Italian soldiers in the First World War; it's a moving piece, as you would expect, and features a lovely opening by Ellis on organ.
You can listen to John Helliwell previewing the album here:
The reflective Washing Of The Water, a Peter Gabriel song from Us, sounds almost hymnal here, which works well, and its good to hear the Rick Davies tune, Ever Open Door again - one of Supertramp's less well-known tracks, but given a fresh coat of paint here.
There's room for some improvisation on the album; It Seemed That Life Was So Wonderful features some lovely playing by Simmy Singh, whilst The Lads In Their Hundreds was completely improvised on the spot, with no rehearsal. But for the most part, Ever Open Door is quite tightly arranged, and to Scott's credit, there is plenty of variety in the arrangements.
My only complaint is that by focusing exclusively on ballads, the album does feel a little one-paced. It would have been good to hear a few more up-tempo tunes to break things up, or a couple of pieces without strings - Surman-style. On a more positive note, the album is beautifully recorded, 'live' at Storyhouse in Chester, and the production captures the atmospherics to good effect.