John Helliwell on early influences, the Super Big Tramp Band and how to get perfect pitch

We had a chat with Supertramp frontman and saxophonist John Helliwell, ahead of his Super Big Tramp Band show at Hull Jazz Festival next month:

Q: You’ve said it was a family friend’s record collection that first introduced you to jazz. Who were those jazz artists who inspired you to save up for your first clarinet? And what was it about their music that drew you in to the jazz world?

A: “Petite Fleur” played by Monty Sunshine of the Chris Barber Jazz Band and written by Sidney Bechet inspired me to play the clarinet – the sound was so captivating and I thought that, because I could play the recorder, I would have a chance of being able to play the clarinet.

Q: How did the idea for the Super Big Tramp Band come about, and how long’s the project been in the making?

A: The idea was suggested to me by Mike Hall, the director of the big band at the Royal Northern College of Music, in 2013. He asked several alumni to write arrangements of Supertramp tunes for a performance with the student big band. It was a resounding success! Rob Buckland, now senior tutor in saxophone there, was constantly bugging me to do it again, this time with professionals – so we did it at Storyhouse in Chester last year and again at the Manchester Jazz Festival this year – and after Hull in November and Hamburg in December – The World!

Q: With such an extensive back catalogue to choose from, how did you go about selecting which Supertramp songs to arrange for the Big Band?

A: We let the arrangers choose the numbers themselves – there’s a little more surprise then.

Q: You’re known for your sense of humour and wit and rumour has it you broke the ice with your future Supertramp bandmates by telling them a joke. Have you got any good jazz jokes for us?

A: What’s the definition of perfect pitch?
When you toss a banjo in the skip and it hits an accordion!

Q: As the nights are drawing in, we’re on the hunt for some tunes to cosy up to and/or get us moving this winter. What Winter Warmers would you recommend, and why?

A: Cosy up to Charlie Haden’s “Nocturn” beautiful music by a stellar quintet/ sextet including Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Joe Lovano and Pat Metheny. Or you could try my new CD if it’s out in time – “When I Was Young…..” – ballads for saxophone, string quartet and hammond organ.

John Helliwell & The Super Big Tramp Band are heading to Hull Truck Theatre on Friday 15th November. Tickets available from the Hull Truck Theatre Box Office online, in person at the box office or by calling 01482 323638.