John Helliwell, Ever Open Door. Challenge Records Int. CR73511.
Released December 2020. Playing time: 73m.50s
John Helliwell - Tenor Saxophone & Clarinet
John Ellis - Hammond Organ
The Singh String Quartet
Arrangements by Andy Scott
I was scrolling my social media feed when I noticed press release that John Helliwell, ex - Supertramp star and the great Lord Stackhouse himself, had released a new album featuring a colour palette of tenor saxophone, clarinet, sumptuous strings and Hammond organ. Hmm, I thought - that sounds interesting - and I downloaded the album immediately.
I put on my headphones and cracked on with my static bicycle routine in the kitchen, pedalling my road to nowhere, mid - Covid - 19 lockdown. Bathed in a beautiful wash of harmonious and finely rendered audio, by track four I realised that I wasn't pedalling very fast and had to revert to listening to the rather more frenetic sounds of Dirty Loops. John's recording would have to wait until later and would be given my full attention. Let me explain...
'Ever Open Door' is an album to be savoured, to be listened to, to be enjoyed at leisure and given time. This album is a mood in itself, and if you are looking for a relaxed and retrospective vibe to sink into, then I suggest you give it a thorough listen. How would I best describe it? It's an album of songs without words. The accomplished musicianship of John Ellis and the Singh String Quartet creates an attractive chamber blend with John's full, round tone on both saxophone clarinet. I doubt that anyone could fail to enjoy snatches of The Beatles in 'If Everyone Was Listening'; the folk - like melody set atop gentle dissonances in 'The Wayfaring Stranger' or the soulful, spiritual quality to 'Gather the Spirit'. It was very hard to choose a favourite track because they all have something different to offer, but I think that the arrangement that started off the whole project - 'Waly Waly', would be my choice.
The melodies featured on this album are simple; the tracks have close key relationships, and the overall feel is distinctly downtempo. All songs have been superbly arranged by Andy Scott (with the exception of one, which was improvised) and Andy's deep understanding of what was required for this project is an essential factor in creating exactly what this has been designed to be - a memorial, a retrospective, and a contemplative tribute to the life and memory of Kathy Rundell.
This album also sounds as though it was a project John really wanted to record. It is borne of such a strong, specific idea that the more I listen to it, the more I hear and the more I understand that it's an album to be felt and not simply heard. With a portfolio of songs spanning ancient and new, through traditional to contemporary, this feels like a highly personal representation of a lifetime's work in so many ways; almost as though it has a transcendent quality, and John is looking back in multi - faceted contexts.
I received a lovely message from John asking if he might send me this album. I told him I was way ahead and had already heard it, but that I'd love a hard copy because I really enjoy CD sleeve notes and art - work. He duly obliged, and the CD liner does not disappoint as there is some stunning photography to be enjoyed.
Don't listen to this album once and decide what you've heard. Listen to it twice, three times and more on different days, and peel away the layers.
© Lara C James Jan 2021