Pianist/composer Helen Sung has spent most of her life in two distinct worlds. A classical student from a young age who transitioned to jazz in her early twenties, she understands the limitless range and potential of the piano in a way that few specialists in either genre can. In addition, as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Sung embodies two diverse cultures and has discovered a musical voice and identity that are true to both – and more importantly, true to herself.
Sung was born in Houston, Texas. She began playing classical piano at age five, studying for most of her youth with a teacher who took a very narrow and 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 walked this straight and narrow path all the way through four years of Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts. “It’s such a shame,” she recalls, “because I was right across the hall from the jazz department at HSPVA, but I never had any contact with the jazz students.”
Despite her parents’ hopes that she pursue a more traditional career in medicine, Sung enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, where she studied classical piano. The plan was to become a concert pianist and probably teach in tandem with performing, but the seismic shift occurred in her last year of undergraduate studies, when 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 the work of every jazz pianist imaginable, 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.”
Sung stayed at the University of Texas past the usual four-year program and received both a Bachelor & Master’s of Music in Classical Piano Performance (she would’ve gone for a Master's in Jazz but at the time no such degree was offered at UT). Thus, she stayed to do a Master's in Classical Piano while taking all the jazz courses that were available at the time. The result was something akin to a double Master’s.
A growing concern over this change in Sung’s musical studies caused her parents to insist that she consider doctoral programs in classical piano after she received her Master’s degree. Walking a fine line between their agenda and her own, Sung requested information from various schools, including the New England Conservatory. A modest paragraph in NEC’s brochure announced the brand new Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz to be housed there. Putting it all on the line, she submitted an application for the Monk Institute only.
“I really don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t been accepted, but lo and behold, I got in,” she says. “It was such a special experience. 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 Monk Institute’s inaugural two-year program – which included just seven students in all – boasted an impressive roster of teachers, including Clark Terry, Jackie McLean, Jimmy Heath, and Jon Faddis, to name a few. “It was a very intense experience,” says Sung. “The seven of us went on tour in India and Thailand with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. I feel so blessed to have had that opportunity. I would not be who I am as a musician, and I would not be doing what I’m doing with the music, if it weren’t for that experience.”
Upon graduation, Sung gigged around Boston with some of her Monk Institute alumni and area artists before moving to New York in 1999, where she established a small group with whom she further refined her performance chops and also began testing her abilities as a composer. By 2002, she had compiled enough material to record Push, her first album released on the Fresh Sound label in 2003. Helenistique followed in 2006, before she switched to Sunnyside with the 2007 release of Sungbird After Albeniz.
Going Express (also on Sunnyside) was recorded live at the Jazz Standard in New York City and released in 2010, and (Re)Conception followed a year later on Steeplechase, a Danish label.
Along with the recordings came more and more touring. In addition to performing with her own band in the U.S, and internationally, Sung also took part in various stage and studio projects along the way with a range of artists, including Clark Terry, T.S. Monk, Steve Turre, Regina Carter, Lonnie Plaxico and Terri Lyne Carrington.
“Getting to be on the stage with folks like that is so heavy. You just learn so much. Terri Lyne is someone I recently started working with and it’s been a great experience and inspiration. She’s had such a fascinating and diverse life. I love how she continues to be open and curious about music.” (Sung appeared on Carrington’s GRAMMY® Award-winning Mosaic Project recording released in 2011.)
In 2011, Sung played with the Mingus Dynasty Band in the city where her parents grew up in Taiwan. “We played the outdoor jazz festival, and there were more than 2000 people there, all of them going crazy for jazz…a simply incredible experience!” she says. “I also heard some young Taiwanese jazz musicians, and they could play! It was a really cool experience. I felt a connection with them – and I felt connected to being Chinese – in a way I had never felt before.”
Anthem for a New Day, Sung’s Concord Jazz debut, is set for release January 28, 2014. A mix of original material, a few standards and a few surprises, Anthem for a New Day is a declarative statement that finds Sung at the forefront of a six-piece band, with guest appearances by violinist Regina Carter and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera.
“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. I can’t believe how rare that feeling is as an artist.”
“So this album really represents the next chapter in my artistic journey, and I am thrilled to get the opportunity to release it on Concord Records. That this comes at a time when I am more confident and happy about the kind of artist I am becoming is a great blessing, and I’m excited to share it with the world: it’s a new chapter, a new day, and I invite you to join me in the celebration of this album and music!”