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David Helbock: Inside & Outside the Piano

Mark Sullivan By

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Austrian pianist/composer David Helbock was born in 1984, and began playing the piano at the age of six. He studied at the Feldkirch Conservatory with Prof. Ferenc Bognar, where he finished in 2005 with an "excellent" degree in performance and since 2000 took lessons with the New York jazz pianist Peter Madsen, who became his teacher, mentor and friend. Awards include the audience prize at the world's biggest jazz-piano-solo competition of the Jazzfestival Montreux, and the most important prize in Austria in 2011: the "Outstanding Artist Award."

Most recently his group David Helbock's Random/Control won the 2018 International 7 Virtual Jazz Club contest (Pros & Amateurs' Category) with their video performance of Chick Corea's "Spain." This year that contest also included an Under 25 Students' Category, won by Spanish pianist Carlos Pascual Cippelletti, who presented the song "Andanza." Two pianists worth watching.

All About Jazz: How did you get started in music?

David Helblock: My father is a musician as well, so I somehow grew into it. At home always great music from jazz to classical to world music was played, as my father is also a big record collector. Later I first studied at a local music school in Feldkirch (western Austria): I started playing piano when I was six.

AAJ: Having started playing piano at such a young age, what music were you learning, and when did you become interested in jazz? What triggered your interest?

DH: I had a really nice and open piano teacher from Mexico. I even think back then, when I first visited the music school with my father and looked at all the different instruments—I more chose her then chose the piano. We played all kinds of music—of course classical like Mozart and Bach, but also modern music like rock piano, Beatles songs... The first jazz concert I attended (also with my father) was the Zawinul Syndicate (keyboardist/composer Joe Zawinul's band post-Weather Report). That definitely triggered my interest and then later when I was 11, I started taking lessons at the Jazzseminar Dornbirn, a music school focused on jazz in the local area. And when I was around 16, Peter Madsen (who has played with musicians like Stan Getz, Fred Wesley and Mario Pavone) moved to Austria from New York and became my teacher, mentor and friend.

AAJ: What musicians and styles have been most influential in your development, as pianist and composer?

DH: There are many. Of course first I have to mention my long-term teacher and mentor Peter Madsen, as he showed me most of the different music. Also in terms of musicians and styles—I'm pretty addictive—so for half a year or so I listen to one person and try to get everything I can from that musician, but then often I leave them alone again and go to the next one. When I think about it, there are only a few that I come back to over and over and that stayed with me in my life so far. I would definitely say Béla Bartók, Thelonious Monk, Hermeto Pascoal, Mario Pavone and Prince.

AAJ: What are some of your favorite albums?

DH: Keith Jarrett: Nude Ants (ECM Records, 1980); Thomas Chapin Trio Sky Piece (Knitting Factory Works, 1998); Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic: Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (Deutsche Grammophon, 1977). But I like to listen a lot to what my colleagues do: from the ACT label: Joachim Kuhn New Trio: Beauty & Truth (2016); Emile Parisien Quartet: Double Screening (2019). Or from the Austrian scene: Kompost 3: Epigenesis (Laub Records, 2013); Mario Rom's Interzone: Truth is Simple to Consume (Traumton Records, 2017).

AAJ: Your recordings and concerts are split between three projects: The David Helbock Trio, David Helbock's Random/Control, and solo piano. How do you manage to keep all these musical activities going? How do you pick the cover material from other composers?

DH: Yes, at the moment these are my most working projects. But I also would mention more: my duo with the the Vienna trumpet player Lorenz Raab, or a quartet with singer Filippa Gojo, tuba player Johannes Bär and drummer Bodek Janke. Or another quartet with me playing keyboards and Peter Madsen playing piano, called Mistura. But these projects only play once in a while. At the moment I´m mainly on tour (playing over 100 concerts in the last year) with my band David Helbock´s Random/Control.

I´m a musician that really likes to think from one project to the next, from one album to the next. So whatever is my latest CD released, that's the project I'm focusing on for 150%.

In 2018 Tour d´Horizon with Random/Control was released (that's why I´m touring with them at the moment) and in 2016 I released Into the Mystic with my trio with bass ukulele (Raphael Preuschl) and drums (Reinhold Schmolzer). In 2016/17 we played hundreds of concerts with that trio: at the moment not so much, but I'm sure it will come back again with a new CD.

I already mentioned that I did a compositional project in 2009 where I wrote one tune every day for a whole year and later published My Personal Real Book with over 600 pages of original music. But also since then I have been composing a lot—so I have hundreds of pieces that have never been played. That's why, if I choose cover material instead of my own songs, there has to be a good reason and I must have a very emotional connection to that music. Mostly it´s music I choose that accompanied me my whole life. So I did a Prince cover CD Purple (Traumton Records, 2013) or one with the music of Thelonious Monk and Hermeto Pascoal: Think of Two (Traumton Records, 2014).

Also my latest CD is a cover CD with famous jazz tunes that I have a strong emotional relationship to: Tour d´Horizon (ACT Music, 2018) It contains pieces like "My Song" by Keith Jarrett (which was probably the song I first heard in my life as a baby—as my mother also loved the music) or "Watermelon Man" by Herbie Hancock, which was the first music I bought myself as a teenager.

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