Before & After: Helen Sung

IMG_0001Along with Beyoncé Knowles, Robert Glasper and Jason Moran, pianist Helen Sung is among the celebrated alumni of Houston, Texas’ High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. After preparing for a classical concert career, Sung fell in love with jazz, graduated from the Thelonious Monk Institute and went on to work with Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Regina Carter and T.S. Monk while also touring internationally with her own groups. We met for this midnight listening session following her quintet performance at the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in May. Sung’s new recording as a leader, Anthem for a New Day, is her first for Concord Jazz.

1. Kenny Barron

“Triste” (from #Kenny Barron & The Brazilian Knights#, Sunnyside). Barron, piano; Lula Galvão, guitar. Recorded in 2012.

Before: Really nice. It’s ‘Triste.’ No bass and drums needed. It’s true; the whole orchestra is in the piano. You might think of piano and guitar in opposition occupying the same musical space, but it’s so nice to hear the two work so well together. I love the use of color, the range. You don’t feel anything is missing at all. I’m trying to figure out who it is. I was going to say Kenny Barron, but I didn’t hear the level of detail. If it’s Kenny, then maybe the guitarist is Romero Lubambo? It’s from that realm.

Before: I took a couple of lessons with Kenny when I was at the Monk Institute and he’s one of my role models. His sound and his touch are so beautiful. This was a more restrained, less intricate performance than I might have expected. But to be simple and beautiful is difficult, so I respect that. Maybe as you travel along in your journey as a artist you become a greater distillation of what it is you are. And that’s not an easy thing they just did. His conception and his touch, sound and feel are quite formidable.

2. Ralph Alessi & Fred Hersch

“San Francisco Holiday” (from Only Many, Cam Jazz). Alessi, trumpet; Hersch, piano. Recorded in 2012.

Before: That’s Fred Hersch, isn’t it? Is that a Monk tune? I love the intelligence and sense of humor in that performance. I’ve always admired Fred as an individual in his story, but also for his personal and unique approach to playing, especially solo piano. For me, to feel comfortable playing solo is like a holy grail I’ll be chasing for the rest of my life. He’s really found something that has depth and substance. And because I come from the classical world, I like how he approaches the instrument texturally and in different, creative ways. I remember when I was in the midst of grappling with learning to swing and play jazz, I had come from playing concertos and sonatas and I wanted to somehow bring that into my jazz playing. I feel Fred is doing that. He has a distinctive use of the whole range of the keyboard. He’s a great accompanist, a great solo player and he has all the jazz tradition you could want. Bravo.

Tell me about the trumpet player.

So in tune with what Fred is doing. It’s a unique approach. I know Fred has played with Ralph Alessi but I’m not that familiar with Mr. Alessi’s sound. It’s not fair when there’s a mute [laughs].

After: Really? I only played with Ralph once, when he subbed in Lonnie Plaxico’s group. You can hear all of jazz in this. That’s what makes it work.

3. Tommy Flanagan & Jaki Byard

“Scrapple From The Apple” (from The Magic of Two, Resonance). Flanagan, Byard, piano. Recorded in 1982.

Before: Classic bebop. This is what drew me to jazz in the first place, that kind of swing. It makes you want to move, and the lines are so beautiful, so timeless. These two pianists are playing that stuff inside out, quoting things. But they need to tune that piano [laughter]. It’s fun, raucous, intense. I appreciate the earthy rawness of the blues right alongside the elegance and sophistication of the bebop. I thought I heard a noise that Barry Harris makes, but I don’t recognize the lines. It’s somebody from that era. One of them is more bebop, the other one, the first long solo, is more raw blues. Maybe Larry Willis or John Hicks?

After: Oh my god. Tommy Flanagan’s solo on “Confirmation” on the Enja label with George Mraz and Elvin Jones is what inspired me to play this music. I like Jaki Byard’s abrupt quality; really smart, too. It’s music with a lot of good will behind it.

4. Gerald Clayton

“Shadamanthem” (from Life Forum, Concord). Clayton, piano; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Dayna Stephens, tenor saxophone; Joe Sanders, bass; Justin Brown, drums. Recorded in 2012.

Before: This is more my era [laughs]. There’s a lot of intricacy with the recording, using a lot of techniques in the studio: cut-ins, add-ins, and electronic stuff. And the composition is very modern. I enjoyed that; very pretty with shifting meters and bars of different lengths. It’s very smart music, heady, but lyrical and beautiful at the same time. It reminds of someone who might have worked with Steve Coleman. It’s coming from somewhere else. It’s highly compositional with very distinct colors and angular soloing; I feel there’s a concept behind it, which is why I thought of Coleman.

After: Oh, he’s fantastic; great musician, great pianist. He’s been steeped in the music, probably since he was conceived. It’s all there. It’s got heart. It moves me. And I think the creative use of the recording process is really cool. So that was Ambrose? I enjoyed that. Thank you.

5. Charles Lloyd/Jason Moran

“God Only Knows” (from Hagar’s Song, ECM). Lloyd, saxophone; Moran, piano. Recorded in 2012.

Before: Sounds like a pop song. It’s short. Can I hear it again? The first time I listened to it I kept expecting it to turn into one standard or another. Pop songs have their own language, too. And sometimes when jazz artists do a cover, it becomes a cliché, but not here. I appreciated how much silence there is in that recording. That was really nice. It felt immediate, honest, uncontrived. It’s very different from the last thing we listened to, which was intricate and had so many moving parts. This just felt natural, organic.

After: Wow. I would have never guessed that. Is that Brian Wilson’s song?

Charles recorded with the Beach Boys.

What? That’s so cool. And Jason plays with Charles.

6. Alicia de Larrocha

“Malaguena” (from Icon: Alicia de Larrocha, EMI). Alicia de Larrocha, piano. Reissued in 2010.

[Immediately] Alicia de Larrocha. Really. I’m so sad that she’s gone. No one can play Spanish music like her. I know this so well. This is one of the recordings I listened to when I prepared the #Sungbird (After Albeniz)# project. I never got to hear her live. She was a tiny lady with small hands but she tackled the repertoire and played it so fearlessly and with integrity. There’s such graciousness about her playing. No airs. Honest music making. I took this at a faster tempo; now I ask why did I do that? [laughter]. That’s such a cool, deliberate way of playing it; old-fashioned but in a very charming, hip kind of way.

If she were here with us right now, what would you ask her?

How did she do it with her small hands and her small frame? I would have loved to see how she physically played the instrument.

There are clips of her performances on YouTube.

I didn’t know that. I’m just afraid of getting lost in the whole sea of drowning in YouTube. I’m one of those addictive personalities types. If I get into something, there’s no coming back. [laughs]

So you don’t look at YouTube?

No. I remember when I was at the Monk Institute and jazz videos were so rare and we were amazed to see the clip of Miles on the Steve Allen Show. And now everything is available. And it’s so odd. I know if I start I’ll stay up for days watching that stuff. So I have to be careful [laughter]. But I want to see how she projects her sound.

7. Eldar Djangirov

“No Moon At All” (from Breakthrough, Motema). Djangirov, piano; Armando Gola, bass; Ludwig Afonso, drums. Recorded in 2012.

Before: Is this Oscar? Somebody’s trying to copy him. I feel I should know who this is. It’s highly arranged trio playing. Very well done, virtuosic, super clean, a lot of cute asides. Tamir Hendelman? I recognize the line and the sound but I just can’t think of who it is. It sounds like a throwback style and performance. It’s nice. I respect that. It’s fun to listen to. Maybe it’s not my favorite, but it’s impressive. I hear a lot of fingers.

After: I haven’t followed his career that closely but I know he’s known for his chops.

8. Vadim Neselovskyi

“Andantino in modo de canzona” (from Music for September, Sunnyside). Neselovskyi, piano, vocal. Recorded in 2011.

Before: It’s Eastern European. Russian? That’s really beautiful; a very fragile, vulnerable performance. I like stuff like that. I hear a love of Brazilian music, Jobim and all that, but with a Russian soul; a very deep feeling and sensibility for art. But that II-V progression sounds very Brazilian to me.

After: Oh! Is he singing too? He teaches at Berklee. That’s my first time hearing him. Very nice, cool Ukrainian soul.

9. Art Tatum

“Blue Skies” (from Complete Capitol Recordings Vol. 2, Capitol). Tatum, piano. Recorded in 1949.

This better be Art Tatum or I’ll die if there’s somebody else who can play like him [laughs]. “Blue Skies.” The only thing about Art Tatum, and I’ll say this and take the hit for it, is his playing is so complete. I’ve never enjoyed him with an ensemble. He did everything. You don’t need anything else. He’s got the bass, he’s got the drum. He sounds orchestral. I love that.

Does he sound modern to your ears; harmonically, for example?

[long pause] Yes and no. His chromaticism is not a systemic thing. I feel like he had certain patterns he always went to or he seemed to gravitate towards. They were usually executed in the same places; the II-V’s, the tri-tone subs. It is one type of chromatic approach, but I feel at heart his music was diatonic with bursts of chromaticism. To me, that doesn’t sound so modern. That’s not a bad thing. Not at all. But at that time, the repertoire he was playing was so diatonic and he probably sounded pretty far out with those runs. But that was more ornamental and not the heart of what he was doing.

And what was the heart of what he was doing?

The summation of jazz at that time; stride, but looking forward into swing and bebop. He was the ultimate version of that.

10. Craig Taborn

“Saints” (from Chants, ECM). Taborn, piano; Thomas Morgan, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums. Recorded in 2012.

Before: It’s interesting listening to all these different recordings. I’ve been mixing my new record and hearing all these other people’s choices. The way they chose to do the reverb here was interesting. Is this Jason again? Wow, that went a few places I didn’t expect it to. Very interesting. Is it a live performance? Even though it opened up into what sounded like free improv, I felt it was still a tight, controlled agenda, musically. There’s a very conscious purpose or intention. I liked it. It surprised me. I think this kind of music demands more of the listener.

After: Cool. I heard his solo album, which I enjoyed. It was a creative, open approach. Oh, this is an ECM recording? It felt like they were in a big room [with] a lot of reverb on the drums. I respect him and his work immensely. I’ll check out the rest of this.

11. Mary Lou Williams

“Play It Momma” (from Zoning, Smithsonian/Folkways). Williams, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Mickey Roker, drums. Recorded in 1974.

Before: [chuckles with grunts of appreciation] Was this recorded in the 70s? With that bass, I thought we were getting into Shaft and “The Pusher Man.” I kept waiting for them to get into a walking bass, but they never did, which was nice. That’s just music you can groove to. That was fun. Makes you feel good. There was restraint, but it’s obvious this pianist could play a whole lot of piano with those chords, those voicings, and the whole bluesy thing.

After: Was this before her sacred period? I can see why all those pianists [Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Tadd Dameron] went by her house. There’s so much music there, so much to learn from.

Some recordings that changed your life?


Bill Evans Portrait in Jazz …a great bridge for me coming from the classical world, and going into jazz rather late-in-life; Miles Davis My Funny Valentine + Four & More …one of the pinnacles of jazz ensemble playing, and summation of jazz history up until then; McCoy Tyner The Real McCoy …a true original and his different conceptual approach floored me; Wayne Shorter Atlantis …a compositional masterpiece; Stevie Wonder Songs In The Key Of Life …one of the most complete, perfect musical statements and albums.

Recorded in 2013 for JazzTimes



One comment on “Before & After: Helen Sung

  1. Allen Lowe says:

    describing Tatum as basically diatonic does NOT inspire confidence in here listening abilities. He was the opposite; his basic organizational concept was chromatic. Very strange…..

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