Horst Jankowski – So What’s New? [Mercury Records, 1966]

Horst Jankowski - So What's New?Reading about, or listening to Horst Jankowski, you’ll read or think about how he bangs on the keys of his piano. While Horst does jab his fingers into each key with an enthusiasm outrivaling any of his contemporaries; closer listening reveals a slight reverb worked into the pick-up of a carefully placed microphone aimed either directly at, or possibly inside, the piano given the loudness and clarity of Jankowski’s instrument. Liner notes written by Jankowski’s producer, Lou Reizner for So What’s New? mention the meticulous hours Horst spent setting up his instruments and choosing their placement in the recording studio hours before any music would actually be recorded. All of this attention to recording quality reveals the real reason for the intensity with which Jankowski seems to strike the keys with such force; a loudness leaving his piano front and center in all of his recordings that is more the result of his representation of sound rather than his method of playing.

Regardless of how you record or how you play, you need to create catchy tunes to be successful. So What’s New? contains a mixed-bag of original recordings and cover versions of standards like Strangers in the Night. Sounding somewhat like fellow pop musician Bert Kaempfert, this Jankowski LP features heavily thrumming bass and percussion, along with a small ensemble of instruments consisting of strings, an electric rhythm guitar, and the occasional percussive instrument like maracas or tambourine. Horst Jankowski doesn’t do anything fancy, he doesn’t play quickly, he doesn’t throw in a lot of complicated notes or solos; aside from the occasional fluttering of several notes, he gives an unpretentious performance and is simply a good pianist. There’s nothing outstanding about So What’s New, but it is a solid production with enough enjoyable arrangements and melodies, aside fromh the occasional yawners, providing a very listenable collection of songs.

Either a little bit of whimsy went into the album’s cover photo, or someone had a very strange sense of the “cool” and the “now.” Gracing the cover, peering between sheets of gold and silver metallic plastic appears a bouffant wearing woman who seems to know exactly “what’s new” as far as space-aged evening gowns are concerned; hanging from the plain red dress she wears are innumerable bright gold circles, presumably cut from the same shimmering material she emerges from in the photo. Apparently, the gold circles tie together the whole “metallic sheets” theme, and while adding to the whimsy of the whole composition, it really doesn’t compliment the model, who looks as though she’s been trying anything “new” a little too much and a little too often. Surprisingly, a space-age-groovy type font was chosen for the title, considering the mellow groove the album creates, and the inclusion of decidedly conservative tunes like Strangers in the Night it was an odd choice.

Jankowski’s first international hit was A Walk in the Black Forest, paving the way for his appearance on several television stations in the United States, including The Johnny Carson Show. According to What’s New’s liner notes, after Horst performed his hit tune live for the late-night TV audience, they gave such a rousing ovation afterwards that Johnny Carson was led to remark that he had not seen “a musician break it up like this for a long time.”
Trained in classical piano at the Berlin Music Conservatory, Horst was attracted to jazz, played at various clubs, and eventually recorded German production music for the Sonoton company. These original compositions for Sonoton got him recognized as a competent composer and performer, and he eventually landed a recording contract with Mercury Records.

What’s New? kicks off with the title track, So What’s New, a sparkling five-note melody backed by pizzicato strings and drums. Jankowski twists and re-invents the simple tune as the track bounces along. Most of this record consists of mellow tunes recorded with a sparkling clarity that adds to the light cadence of the entire production. Two of the more interesting tracks on the LP occur as the third cut on each side, and feature a bossa nova beat. A Place in the Sun from side A presents the always prominent bass-line, and the beat of a tambourine backed by strings and a snappy snare drum. While the arrangement is decidedly upbeat, A Place in the Sun maintains a mellow, relaxed ambiance finished off with a flourish of plucked strings. Side B’s All My Happiness layers in maracas and a rhythmic electric guitar which accompany the string section while the ever-present bass line bumps heavily beneath it’s cool bossa groove. The entire album slides along, maintaining a light touch, with clarity and expert arrangements to maintain a level of listenability regardless of how loud or bombastic the piano threatens to become as it pushes through the center of each composition.

Next time you dine with a special-someone, candle-light and wine adding to the atmosphere, spin So What’s New and allow the sparkling keys of Horst Jankowski to ease the evening into a special rhythmic festival of romance, suitable either for dancing or relaxing. Just don’t show them the cover.

Nathan Miner

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