Making their Australian debut, this Austrian trio – led by young virtuoso David Helbock – played a precise and winning set to open the Hoot! Jazz Festival weekend.
Helbock, who began recording as a teenager, is a lean and laconic figure in Levi’s, long-sleeved T-shirt and piano-key beanie – but his playing is a wonderful exercise in contrasts.
He’s a physical performer, often leaning into the open grand piano to pluck the strings with his fingers or tap the piano frame, to add unexpected percussive elements to the performance.
This sets up an interesting interplay with drummer Herbert Pirker and the equally youthful Raphael Preuschl on bass ukulele – who knew that this instrument could be a very effective replacement for the traditional stand-up bass?
Helbock is a prolific composer and much of the set is from his songbook (including the wonderful May 31, from a book of pieces he wrote in 2009 – one for every day of the year), interspersed with works by Peter Madsen and Thelonious Monk, to name a few.
He’s full of tricks, using a table of hand-held percussion and wind toys to create sound loops and effects on the spot. Even a party whistle gets a showing.
But this isn’t really a gimmicky show. In fact, when Helbock shifts from frantic virtuosity to lyrical expansiveness the true mettle of his technique and musicality can be seen.
His tribute to Monk, “No Therapy for Monkaholics” (see video clip above), is fun, precise, enormously entertaining.
A mark of the artist is his innovation and melding of styles. The young pianist has produced an entire album of Prince songs, Purple, arranged for solo jazz piano, and his version this night of “Kiss” was a bracing mix of the conventional and the innovative. A book and a wooden mallet laying on the piano wires allowed his solo performance to sound as though it was accompanied by a toy piano, lead guitar and a tap dancer, all at the same time. It’s funky, intricate and winning.
An Austrian folk song – “Apple You are So Round” – sounds almost South African, with the bass ukulele taking the lead.
It’s all fun stuff, but there’s no question about the virtuosity underlying every tune.
Apparently Helbock approached Hoot! to appear – let’s hope he had had a great time in the Hills and returns next year.
More Hoot! Jazz Festival reviews:
James Carter Organ Trio
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