-Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, December 2015-
HELEN SUNG: FORAY INTO THE TRADITION
By John Pietaro
“Jazz is one of the generous art forms”, Helen Sung remarked. “It’s based on interaction, expressiveness. I came to the music late in life and had to understand the soul of jazz before I could revel in the tradition”. After years of classical training, and while preparing for a career as a concert pianist, Sung stumbled upon jazz in an odd turn of events, and then nothing was the same.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants she describes as having been “very integrated” into western culture, Helen Sung’s relationship with European classical music began in the earliest stages of childhood. “My parents played it in the house all of the time and I had this little red plastic piano I used to carry around everywhere. I was very attached to it and used to try to pick out little bits of melodies. As soon as my mother noticed this, she decided I needed to pursue the instrument. We acquired an upright and I began lessons at age 5”. Sung’s studies were, from the start, rather strict and she developed an understanding of music notation and harmony along with technique early on. Simultaneously, she became part of a Suzuki-inspired violin ensemble. While the piano lessons offered her formal musical foundation, the ensemble afforded her the first opportunity to appear onstage. “I remember feeling a sense of familiarity and comfort being on stage and I guess it just stayed with me”.
Stay with her it did. Studies brought Sung to the University of Texas. The school has a history of sporting serious jazz careers, but the budding pianist neglected to cross the hall to investigate the genre, so focused was she on classical repertoire. Until a friend brought her to a Harry Connick Jr concert. “The music seemed so free, so driving, I had to learn more about this!” The revelation led her to an almost obsessive regimen of listening to jazz pianists across the spectrum and history of the music. Quickly, she was drawn to the playing of two giants of divergent eras: McCoy Tyner (“he’s a force of nature”) and James P. Johnson, a stand-out among the stride pianists whose playing she absorbed. The influences of both Johnson and especially Tyner would remain a core aspect of her musicianship.
“I took a beginning jazz course and then had to beg the jazz piano teacher top take me on as a student. It took quite some time as I was still a classical piano major, but he finally agreed to give me lessons”. The jazz studies continued on through college, more of a secret desire, even as she completed her Masters of Music in Classical Piano.
Explorations of the art form finally led Sung to audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute’s premier class in 1995. She became a part of a small cadre of students that kicked off the program, which was based on a master/apprentice relationship, within the New England Conservatory. Ron Carter directed the Institute and a series of top-line jazz masters came through including Clark Terry, Jackie McLean and Jimmy Heath. “The Institute was an invaluable godsend!”, she stated, recalling the immersion of education. Sung focused on learning the techniques and feel of be-bop which she delved into with a vengeance. In addition to learning modern jazz, she also began composing it. “Ron Carter told us that if we wanted to find our own voice, we needed to write our own music”.
A final project of the inaugural class was a tour of India and Thailand with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. For Sung, there was no turning back. She relocated to New York City in 1999 and established her own ensemble, recording her first album as a leader within three years. As of this writing, she is working on her seventh, in between a barrage of tours not only as a leader but also in bands led by others including Clark Terry, Regina Carter, TS Monk, Steve Turre, Lonnie Plaxico and Terry Lynne Carrington. In 2011 she also became the pianist of the Mingus Dynasty Big Band.
“I’d pretty much had shelved my classical playing, attempting to remake myself, but I’m incorporating it into my music in recent years. Yes, I’d had ambitions of melding classical and jazz but then I realized that Charles Mingus had done it already---and beautifully. He was so relevant as a composer and had such a wide scope, from the blues, to Stravinsky influences, and social issues. It’s amazing to help carry on his legacy.”
Helen Sung’s 2014 album on the Concord label, “Anthem for a New Day”, was itself a statement on the growth of her art and the reckoning of the two musical worlds she has coursed through. When asked exactly where the nexus between the two musics lies for her, Sung stated “It’s still being formed”. But the breadth of this album, ranging from audacious original works, unique takes on jazz standards and a point of burning free improvisation, reaches, hydra-like, in many directions at once. Sung’s performance practice quietly demands the full attention of the listener with impeccable technique careening through emotional, swinging harmonies of an advanced nature. Her rhythmic drive, particularly in ensemble settings, drops intrepid tacits within thickets of comping and wistfully compelling leads. As much as Sung gives on stage or in studio, she always sounds like she’s keeping it all just below the rim, holding back with the learned control of the conservatory musician, patiently waiting to turn up the heat.
Another layer to the Sung canon is the project “Sung With Words”, a collaboration with celebrated poet Dana Gioia, who writes not only with literary content in mind, but the rhythmic aspects of the words. It’s poetry that cries midnight blue, refusing to be static, to sit quietly on the page. “I’ve always envied how singers can have a more direct connection to the audience, so after meeting Dana a few years ago, I conceived of this pairing. There’s a powerful depth connecting the words and the music and pieces were written largely through our interaction, growing the poems and the music together. We are prepping for the live debut featuring vocalists Carmen Lundy and Carolyn Leonhardt”. Helen Sung will bring this latest foray to NYC jazz audiences in December.
Sung With Words occurs at the Jazz Gallery on December 17