Q&A with British saxophonist John Helliwell (former Supertramp member), opens lyrical and soulful music doors

"Everybody likes music in some form and whether they know it or not, it gives succor to the soul."

John Helliwell: Music from the Heart!

John Helliwell is a multitalented English musician, saxophonist and occasional keyboardist, woodwind player, and background vocalist for the rock band Supertramp. He also served as an MC during the band's concerts, talking and making jokes to the audience between songs. Helliwell played with The Alan Bown Set, replacing Dave Green when he joined in January 1966, before joining Supertramp in 1973 along with bassist Dougie Thomson, who convinced Helliwell to make the move. In 2004, Helliwell formed the band Crème Anglaise with Mark Hart, who had joined Supertramp in 1985. This group recorded their eponymous debut album in 2005. In 1987 Helliwell played on Pink Floyd's album A Momentary Lapse of Reason; his name was misspelled as "Halliwell". This was after Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour had played on Supertramp's album Brother Where You Bound. Helliwell also played on French singer Jean-Jacques Goldman's 1985 album Positif, and clarinet on Sara Hickman's 1990 album Shortstop. Also played on Diana Ross' 1991 album The Force Behind the Power.                          (Photo: John Helliwell)

During a professional lull in the 1990s, Helliwell began studying for a music degree at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, but he discontinued his studies to join Supertramp on tour when Some Things Never Change was released. In 2004 he contributed saxophone work on the Simon Apple album River to the Sea. Helliwell contributed clarinet to The Pineapple Thief's song "Fend For Yourself" from their Your Wilderness album which was released in 2016. Helliwell fronts the Super Big Tramp Band, which has a jazz big band line-up of trumpets, trombones, saxophones and rhythm section. It plays versions of Supertramp tunes, arranged by members of the band, with no vocals, but with Helliwell as the chief soloist. The band first played in Manchester in June 2013. In 2019 the band played at the Manchester Jazz Festival in May and was scheduled to play in Hull and Hamburg later in the year. Helliwell released his album "Ever Open Door" in October 2020. It is an album of ballads with Helliwell on saxophone and clarinet, with a string quartet and Hammond organ. His new recording titled "Don't Ever Leave Me" (2022), featuring tunes by Keith Jarrett, Rick Davies, Roger Hodgens, Jasper Somsen, John Helliwell and many others.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I look at the world without blinkers and my journeys, both musical and physical, have been free from convention.

Where does your creative drive come from?

With playing, it’s in a place inside that transcends practice and instrumental knowledge — from the heart.

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started and what has remained the same?

I have got more adept at playing my instruments but my passion for “soul” has remained undiminished.                         (Photo: John Helliwell with Alan Parson's Project)

"Communication with others, no matter how slight - even a nod, a wave of a hand, a quick "Good morning” - makes my world go round. Literature and art stimulate me, as do cryptic crosswords!"

What moment changed your music life the most? How do you describe your sound and music philosophy?

I was heavily influenced by jazz and went to see the great saxophonist Tubby Hayes in 1964. In the interval, I heard some strange (to me) sounds from another room. This turned out to be the Graham Bond “Organisation” - Bond on organ and saxophone, Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxophone, Ginger Baker, drums and Jack Bruce, bass. Their music was a revelation to me - powerful r&b. I stayed in that room for the rest of the night and was hooked!

My sound and music philosophy are for me to speak/play from the heart and listen without prejudice.

What's the balance in music between technique (skills) and soul/emotions? What do improvisation mean to you and how important is to your music?

It’s important to have enough technique in order to play without thinking about it - then you can project emotion easier through the instrument.

To improvise is, for me, to leave behind the specifics (keys, notes, scales etc. Which have hopefully been well practiced) and let my mind wander freely

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of “Don’t Ever Leave Me” (2022) and your experiences as guest of “Rock meets Classic”?

“Don’t Ever Leave Me”: We all met for the first time at Motormusic studios in Mechelen and immediately felt a strong bond. We rehearsed for two days and spent three days recording 18 tunes. It all flowed easily because of the empathy and musicality of the Dutch jazzmen!

“Rock meet Classic”: It was such good fun being with all the different rock stars, and a real pleasure to play a few Supertramp songs with Jesse Siebenberg. Each day, a different city and audience, the tour could have been three times as long for me!

"My sound and music philosophy are for me to speak/play from the heart and listen without prejudice." (Photo: Multitalented musician John Helliwell with the British rock band of Supertramp)

Why do you think that Supertramp music legacy continues to generate such a devoted following?

Supertramp songs were finely crafted with much care, so that they stand up to repeated listening.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better musician?

The hardest thing has been learning to play the saxophone and the clarinet to the standard that I demand of myself.

Skiffle/Donegan, Jazz/Chris Barber, Blues/Alexis Korner, etc. What were the reasons that made the UK in the 1960s to be the center of music researches and experiments?

We were open to all influences - European folk and classical, American soul and rock and country. I think we had the ability to absorb it all and be very creative.

How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

I go over and over the tunes, so they become second nature - the rest just follows naturally.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Give one’s all but don’t be too serious.

Life is more than just music, is there any other field that has influence on your life and music?

Communication with others, no matter how slight - even a nod, a wave of a hand, a quick "Good morning” - makes my world go round. Literature and art stimulate me, as do cryptic crosswords!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Princess Diana and Prince Charles — her charm and empathy, and his majestic utterings.

"I want my music to give people an inner peace and fulfilment." (Photo: John Helliwell)

What characterize previous album EVER OPEN DOOR (2020) music philosophy? What do you love most about the act of "live" recording?

EVER OPEN DOOR was envisioned as an album of melodious ballads. Recording with this string quartet and the Hammond organ was delightful because of the overall quietness of all the music.

Are there any exclusively specific memorable moments with people that you’ve performed with either live or in the studio?

Playing with Mike Stern on the stage with Leslie Mandoki’s Soulmates.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past?

I miss “real” instruments from a lot of contemporary popular music.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

The future of music may be so diverse that it will be difficult to concentrate on a necessary few paths.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Get rid of drum machines.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications?

Everybody likes music in some form and whether they know it or not, it gives succor to the soul.

How do you want it to affect people?

I want my music to give people an inner peace and fulfilment.

John Helliwell - Home

(Photos: John Helliwell)

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