“Helen has an absolutely masterful command of the piano and a remarkably clear melodic conception and articulation, which brings a very rare cohesion to her music.” - Benny Green
July 8th, 2007 — Contrary to what some critics would have you believe, jazz, in many ways, is an extension of the European classical tradition. One only needs to hear Bill Evans’ takes on Scriabin, Faure, and Ravel on his Trio with Symphony Orchestra recording; the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Blues on Bach, and on the Miles Davis/Gil Evans masterpiece, Sketches of Spain for confirmation. That fabled European country also provides the setting for Sungbird (After Albeniz), the Sunnyside debut of the astoundingly talented, Houston-born, Chinese-American pianist Helen Sung. The album is Helen’s incredible extension and elaboration on the legendary Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz’s 1890, six-piece work for solo piano, Espana (Opus 165).
This CD, with saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Nasheet Waits, and percussionist Samuel Torres, is the long-awaited follow-up to Sung’s two Fresh Sound/New Talent label recordings, Helenistique and Push. “In 2006, I took the band on this CD (minus the percussionist) on a short tour in Spain and Andorra,” Sung writes in her liner notes. “One of the gigs was a concert that was part of an annual classical arts festival. As I prepared music for the tour, it struck me – why not arrange for jazz quartet a classical piece by a Spanish composer? … I eventually found Isaac Albeniz’s Espana … It was what I was looking for: beautifully written pieces that were distinctive, simple, yet profound, concise and with room for adaptation! The resulting jazz pieces range from simple orchestrations to complete transformation.”
Sung’s sterling pianism blends Chopinesque lyricism and Bill Evans’ improvisational logic with a linear and logical sense of swing on the CD’s 12 tracks, half of which were composed by the leader. The six selections from Albeniz’s composition - “Prelude,” “Tango,” “Malaguena,” “Serenata,” “Capricho Catalan,” and “Encore: Zortzico”- are intimate solo keyboard conversations between Sung and the composer’s exotic Basque, fandango, flamenco, and Gypsy-dance/ballad genres. The rest of the tracks were composed by Sung: “Preamble” is a John Coltrane “Crescent” coded piece that introduces the bouncy, Ahmad Jamal “Poinciana” pulsed, “Shall We Tango?” “Malaguena Miniatura” and “Free Fusion” are New World/Latin jazzed numbers, and Sung’s “Free Fusion” is laced with two-fisted, Lennie Tristano style runs. “Capricho American” evolves from a hymnal aura into down-home spiritual syncopations.
Melding European and American musical genres is a difficult thing to pull off, which makes Sung’s accomplishment even more amazing because she’s a relative newcomer to jazz! She graduated from Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA), which is also the alma mater of drummer Eric Harland and pianist Robert Glasper. Though she started piano lessons at the age of five, and earned her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees in classical piano from the University of Texas at Austin, she was turned on to jazz after she heard Harry Connick, Jr. and Tommy Flanagan. She was the sole female accepted into the 1995 inaugural class of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the New England Conservatory of Music, which selected only seven students in a jazz septet that studied and toured with a number of stars, including Clark Terry, Wynton Marsalis, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. After graduating from the Institute in 1997, Sung settled in Boston, working with bassist Ray Brown and teaching at the NEC’s Continuing Education Program.
A semi-finalist in the 1999 Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition, Sung released Push, her debut on the Fresh Sound/New Talent label in 2003, which featured mostly original compositions, with Richie Goods, Brian Blade, Marcus Strickland and Jeffrey Haynes. Her follow-up standard trio date Helenistique, with Lewis Nash, and bassist Derrick Hodge, was released in 2006. She also has an online-only CD, Live at the Blue Note, with Steve Wilson, Dwayne Burno, and Donald Edwards. She also received a Chamber Music America grant that enabled her group to conduct a weeklong jazz residency program benefiting Camden New Jersey’s Urban Promise Academy and Camden Forward Schools.
Now living in New York City, Sung has gigged with a number of leaders, including Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Regina Carter, T.S. Monk, and Steve Turre. She also worked in the Mingus Big Band, and was featured on Marian McPartland’s NPR radio series Piano Jazz, and on XM Satellite Radio’s In the Swing Seat with Wynton Marsalis. In 2007, Sung won the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Competition.
What Helen Sung has done on Sungbird (After Albeniz) is only the tip of her towering artistic iceberg. “Having come to jazz relatively late … I’ve spent most of the years since trying to swing and soak in the blues,” she writes in the liner notes. “At the same time, there is the desire to improvise and write with increasing clarity and variety of texture seen in the classical music I played. Perhaps this CD project is an attempt to begin integrating the different paths of my musical experience.”