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JOHN HELLIWELL from SUPERTRAMP to EXCALIBUR
By Elise Valère and Michèle Laurent
Excalibur Trilogy Journal
Photo: John Helliwell and Alan Simon got together in studio to record Excalibur III The Origins, the last part of the french composer's trilogy.
CAMOGLI, July 18th - That day we were going on a date with the "Super-tramp", gentleman and saxophonist, Sir John Anthony Helliwell himself. Our journey, the day before had, taken us after eleven hours of a long trip to a big stone house, not far from Portofino, in Sesta Godano, behind the hills of Liguria. The powerful notes of a saxophone welcomed us and as we entered the studio, we could see on a screen an elegant silhouette inclined on its instrument. Although the tiredness and the oppressive warmth, John Helliwell was working hard at about ten tunes from the last part of Alan Simon's folk rock saga. "Excalibur III The Origins" was in progress and we had the privilege to attend recording of the precious contribution of John. Alan and sound engineer Marco Canepa stayed inclined on the console, attentive and respectful in front of the performance of the famous saxophone of Supertramp. What we had the privilege to hear sounded like an eager invitation to discover very soon the last chapter of that musical trilogy. With a broad grin, John and Alan enjoyed staying together again and we could hear it!! Appointment was made and it was with pleasure and early in the morning that we met John Helliwell which gladly accepted to answer our questions.
Q: After forty years of career, you have done, lived and heard so many things, what is your opinion about the actual musical world?
John Helliwell: Today it’s very diverse because of all the new technologies, the internet… Recording is very easy. When I was younger, if you wanted to record you had to go to a studio and record. Everything is more fixed and more diverse now; but it’s nice for me because I’m at an age now where I’m kind of some retired and just do projects which I like. So I enjoy it and enjoy this musical world, it’s very very open.
Q: You have a very particular sound with your saxophone, which have been your models?
J.H.: When I first started, I started on clarinet and my model was one particularly English man who played it called Monty Sunshine; I heard him play this tune by Sidney Bechet called “Petite fleur” and I was very entranced by this. It made me think: “Oh I would love to play the clarinet”. So it interested me enough. I saved my money for two years and I bought a clarinet, which cost fifteen pounds when I was thirteen. And then later I heard some saxophone players, most notably Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and I thought maybe I would like to learn the saxophone as well; so, I was fifteen, I manage to buy my first saxophone. So those were my inspirations, and the main inspiration then and now really is jazz because for saxophonists jazz is obviously very big.
Q : What kind of jazz?
J.H.: Well the jazz I gravitated to was modern jazz – but modern jazz then, which was in the late fifties, early sixties – that’s remained my period but I really like this soul sixties jazz, acoustic, normal. But I do like fusion when using electric instruments, so I really like one of the first big or successful fusion bands with jazz and rock that was Weather Report, which I really liked too. I am a very opened person when one comes to music in general: I listen to all the guitarists, to jazz, to classical… all sorts… what I don’t listen too much is today’s pop music! Because there’s so much music, you know, I can’t listen to everything!
Q: What do you think about the actual musical industry? Have the things changed or evolved?
J.H.: Yes, I think it’s much harder to be successful as a group now; when for example Supertramp was trying to promote themselves and make good music we had a lot of really good backing from the record company which then was A&M records, and they promoted us and they helped us financially as well and to nurture the talent over a long period whereas nowadays the record companies are more interested in short returns and so there’s not a much of nurturing and it’s hard for someone to make a mark. Although it is easy to someone to make music, a track, an album in his own home, put it out on the internet, it’s easier to disseminate but it’s not easy to have a big push with a good company.
Q: Is the definition of the word « artist » still the same?
J.H.: To me, yes! You pursue your “métier”, your area where you’re a painter, a writer, a musician; It’s very important then you take the work you’ve got and you try to better at it and some people are successful some not but it doesn’t necessary mean that there’s not good, they just do something which is not popular, people don’t like it, I mean a lot of painters, for example, never sold any paintings in their lives and then millions and millions, Van Gogh for example. He was not recognized but he must have a passion to do what he wants and you talked about my sound but I’m trying to get better all the time. I know I’m lazy sometime but I try to get my sound better, I try to play better. And now I’m trying to get my sound better and countering it against the effects of getting older and older so perhaps sometime my sound is any better but maybe it is time to retire, who knows?
Q: What's your feeling about the public and its relation to live music today? Do you feel that?
J.H.: When I’m in a situation where I’m performing in front of people where there is, with Supertramp or in the past with all the groups or where there are the same old ones or my small jazz group, every audience is different in a different size, they are fifty or thousand, I really enjoy the rapport with the audience. And I think the audience – artist relationship is the same, it has always been the same in my career. I think it is important to have some little connection with the audience and not to be too back from them. I believe in talking to the audience, not talking down to the audience but talking to relax them and relax you and get a good feeling. But there are some artists who don’t talk, Bob Dylan; I don’t think Bob Dylan talks to the audience. I think it would be difficult to me; I like to talk to the audience. And I think it’s important and I also think it’s important for the artists to look good too. Whatever genre yours is, if you are a punk, look like a punk and feel smart… but I think when an audience see this artist first come onto the stage, they’ll look and will say “oh yes, they must be good” before they’ve played. If they look right… image is important but I think it must be honest.
Q: People see and hear so many things, with internet and the new technologies, they have so much choice; do you think it’s difficult for the artists to make a choice for their live performances?
J.H.: It is but the public go physically to your concert, obviously they are prepared, they want to be entertained for, we think, two hours is proudly enough, not five hours or half an hour but two hours it’s a good time for someone to sit and listen. And I think that relationship is important and obviously only people don’t cheat on stage with tapes, machines, they have to play, and they have to be able to play.
Q: How did you meet Alan and how have you been involved in the project Excalibur?
J.H.: My first communication with Alan was when Alan was with Roger Hodgson and he telephoned me to ask me if I could play on Roger Hodgson’s album, “Open the door”. And I said: “No” [laugh] And Alan said: “Oh John! You must play!” And I said: “Oh I’m sorry I’m in another country, I don’t have time”… or whatever… But later, I think, Alan called me, ‘cause he likes my playing, for his Gaia project. That was very nice, very interesting. One big concert we did was in Cannes with Billy Preston and a lot of different people, I think this is quite interesting and exciting to get all those different people, different genres and blend, sort this is an orchestra, a rock drummer, a jazz violinist… it was really good, I was really happy to be part of it. There was an interesting spectacle of me, white, saxophone player in a black suit, a dark suit, standing next to Manu Dibango, a black man in a white outfit and a white saxophone, there was me and him, he is tall and I’m not too tall and I found that was very funny…. So I enjoy working with Alan… then we did some concerts with Gaia, we did a good season in Zürich, Art on Ice, I think there were 7 concerts and then Excalibur II and now Excalibur III but the Excalibur Tour we did earlier this year was very nice. I like touring and I like the company of all the different people; we were on a bus together and travel together: it was a great experience! In the cold…!! [Editor's note: Germany, January 2010, temperature about -15°C]
Q: So Excalibur is the actuality. There will be a tour…
J.H.: There is a tour starting in January 2011 of course and I should be there in January. I may have some other commitments to do more concerts in the spring but I think I’ll be there later in the year 2011 as well so I should do it if I can.
Q: It’s an opportunity to stay with so many musicians of different style. You seem to be very comfortable with all the kind of music: progressive rock with Supertramp, jazz with Crème Anglaise and Celtic folk rock with Excalibur: how could you explain this fact to be so open minded?
J.H.: I like the diversity, now… maybe twenty years ago I didn’t have time to do all the different projects; now I have time, now I can do. I have the jazz, I play with my own group Crème Anglaise and I play with the Saxophone Orchestra and I play with Alan sometimes, I have played with Alan Parsons, just other projects… Chris de Burgh… just things I like and the people I like, some people that I know, it’s nice to go on visit them, it’s just a quiet life…
Q: And what’s the actuality of your group Crème Anglaise?
J.H.: Well, it’s a jazz group, it’s more difficult to get concerts; we play occasionally in England, we have played France, we’ve played Giverny, a little festival in Giverny, we played it twice and we played in Geneva; so we just do it occasionally. We have a CD as well which is called “Crème Anglaise”.
Q: And there will be a Supertramp’s tour…
J.H.: Oh, yes, for the first time since 2002, Supertramp will be touring again this year, 2010, all September-October, all over Europe : France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Holland, Belgium, England, Ireland… just only one date in England… but we are very happy to do it because it will be eight years since the last tour, we don’t tour very often.
Q: It’s a kind of celebration…
J.H.: Yes I thought it might have been over, because Ric Davies, who is the founder, has the name, so it’s really up to Ric to decide if he wants to tour. So I thought he retired but few months ago he called and said “Let’s do it!” [Laugh]
The Supertramp one is a quite big commitment of time, you know, but it’s truly enjoyable. I love playing. We come back to play for our favorite people: Europeans. [Laugh]
Q: Talking again about the past, what’s your best memory?
J.H.: There’s been some good memory… maybe of concerts, rather than recording, because there’s a good empathy, you know… big concerts like the Park of Sceaux in Paris in 1983, where it rained and everybody was covered and we played “It’s raining again” and just place friends crazy… that was a good one…Oh ! Just concerts … we did a very big concert, I think just because it was so big, it was the best concert we’ve done, in Sao Paulo, in Brazil. In a big stadium, 135 000 people, that’s a lot of people! But then we played in Paris too, 6 people! In a place I think called Bataclan… [Laugh]…way back in the 70’s [laugh] it’s always interesting.
Q: And maybe, to finish, your worst memory about those 40 years of music…?
J.H.: Yeah, I know what it was: I was playing in London in 1972, I think… I was playing in a club. It was a club where men went to drink champagne... And there was a band, a trio - piano, drums and saxophone only used to play; we had to play all the time from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. and sometimes strippers would come and go behind the band and get changed and when they were ready to come out they would knock on the wall behind, we had to stop the tune we were playing and play another tune. That was quite interesting, that was ok but… one New Year’s eve… the pianist could not come but he said would come another pianist and he called this man for one gig but he came and he could only play in the key of C which is very restricting and he could only play boogie woogie piano what is only one style so we had to do 6 hours of music on New Year’s eve in C and in boogie woogie and it was really horrible. It’s the worst music that I have ever had to do. So I was really thankful when 3 o’clock came that night in the New Year [laugh]