Helen Sung Quartet
Sunday, November 6th, 8 p.m.| Fulkerson Recital Hall, HSU
"After a decade’s worth of crisp, conscientious, decorous albums, [Helen Sung’s] Anthem For a New Day is a leap forward, the first full measure of her identity."
—Nate Chinen, New York Times
A classical student from a young age, Helen Sung transitioned to jazz in her early twenties, and consequently she understands the range and potential of the piano in a way that few specialists in either genre can. Born in Houston, Texas, she began playing at age five, studying with a teacher who took a hard-line approach. “She didn’t want me to listen to anything except classical music,” Sung recalls. “It was her way or the highway.”
Sung kept to that straight and narrow path for four years at Houston’s celebrated High School of Performing and Visual Arts, alma mater of fellow pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper, drummers Eric Harland and Kendrick Scott, and a dozen other young jazz luminaries. “It’s such a shame,” Sung recalls, “because I was right across the hall from the jazz department at HSPVA, but I never had any contact with the jazz students.”
Though her parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, Sung enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, where she where stayed with classical piano single-mindedly—until a friend invited her to a Harry Connick, Jr., concert. “As a classical major who lived in the practice room, I didn’t know who he was,” she says. “He had his big band, and they were very entertaining. But then in the middle of the concert, he sat down and played some solo piano pieces, and I remember wanting to jump out of my skin. This music was so alive. He was banging on the piano in a way that I was taught never to do. But it sounded so good.”
The result was an immediate—and dramatic—course correction. Sung enrolled in beginning jazz courses and immersed herself in every jazz pianist from Jelly Roll Morton to Cecil Taylor to Keith Jarrett. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she admits. “I was just listening to all the recordings and reading all the books I could find.”
After staying on at UT for a Master’s degree, Sung was accepted into the inaugural cohort of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, housed initially at the New England Conservatory. “It was such a special experience,” Sung recalls. “Ron Carter was the artistic director, and he worked us hard. It was an incredible two years where I was able to just practice and focus on jazz.” In addition to Carter, the Institute’s two-year program boasted an impressive roster of teachers, including Clark Terry, Jackie McLean, Jimmy Heath, and Jon Faddis, and at one point the class of seven toured India and Thailand with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.
After graduation, Sung gigged around Boston before moving to New York. Her first CD, Push, appeared in 2003, and four others (including Sungbird, featuring jazz orchestrations and “elaborations” of pieces by the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz) followed over the next seven years. In addition to performing with her own band here and abroad, Sung has taken part in stage and studio projects by the likes of Steve Turre, Regina Carter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Meg Okura’s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, and the Mingus Big Band. Along the way, she won the 2007 Kennedy Center Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition (she’d been a semifinalist in the 1999 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition), wrote several commissioned pieces (including one for our old friends and sponsors at North Coast Brewing), and toured southern Africa as a U.S. State Department-Rhythm Road Jazz Ambassador. From 2011 to 2014 she was Associate Professor of Piano at Berklee College of Music in Boston; now she teaches in Columbia University’s Music Performance Program.
In 2014 Sung released Anthem For a New Day, a sextet date with guest appearances by violinist Regina Carter and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera—and a record she herself has called a “leap forward,” a declaration of musical identity. “This album is my way of saying, ‘This is me, take it or leave it,’ instead of something more tentative like, ‘Okay, I’m still working on it,” she says. “Not that I won’t always keep growing and developing, but I’m grateful to be in a place where I’m more comfortable with who I am.” As an artist, she says, that’s a “rare feeling.”
On tour with Sung is saxophonist John Ellis, a sought-after sideman and the leader on nine CDs of his own—most famously with his “urban carnival” band Double Wide, which fuses New Orleans roots and New York hip. Grammy winner Boris Kozlov has managed to fill some rather large shoes: he is the regular bassist, arranger and musical director for the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty and the Mingus Orchestra. And drummer Terreon Gully has kept time for everyone from Chico Freeman to Christian McBride to MeShell Ndegeocello.
(Adapted from Concord Music Group)
Tickets ($15 General Admission, $10 Students & Seniors) are available here at our website and at People's Records, Wildwood Music, Wildberries, and The Works.
Helen Sung will also present an open, public workshop on Monday morning, November 7th at 10:00 a.m. in HSU's Studio Theater (Theater Arts Room 115, to the left and down the hall from the Van Duzer lobby)). People of all levels of experience are welcome to attend, and admission is FREE.
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