Known for her “as serious as your life” approach to musical production since she moved…
Known for her “as serious as your life” approach to musical production since she moved to New York in 1999, pianist Helen Sung is not averse to punning on her name when she titles albums. An early example is Helenistique, a romping straightahead 2005 trio date with Derrick Hodge and Lewis Nash on which Sung channeled the spirit of formative jazz influences Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk. Two years later, she deployed her classical chops on Sungbird, a virtuosic solo signification on the music of fin de siècle Catalan composer Isaac Albéniz. More recently, in 2018, came Sung With Words, a successful jazz-meets-poetry encounter featuring Sung’s harmonically acute, tuneful charts — for four individualistic singers and a top-shelf jazz quintet — utilizing lyrics and spoken-word performance by poet laureate Dana Gioia.
Sung’s eighth leader release, Quartet + (Sunnyside), is more prosaically titled than its predecessors, but it’s perhaps the most daring and personal item in her discography. The project documents a collaboration between Sung’s working quartet (John Ellis, woodwinds; David Wong, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums) and the Harlem Quartet, a veteran trans-genre string ensemble. The units code-switch fluently and synchronously between hardcore jazz, the classical European tradition and pan-Latin dialects, each idiom addressed on its own terms of engagement, through Sung’s five original compositions and new arrangements of works by female jazz composers Toshiko Akiyoshi, Geri Allen, Carla Bley, Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams. Sung’s intelligence and mastery of the piano is evident throughout, illuminating her clear melodic conception and the cohesive logic of her ideas.
The project gestated in June 2018, when Sung and the Harlem Quartet played a two-night jazz-meets-classical gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Eddie Daniels and Ted Nash. “I really appreciated their attitude and enthusiasm for the music, and I was impressed with their understanding and interpretation of jazz,” Sung says on a morning Zoom call in mid-October from the Queens apartment she bought a few years ago. She had just returned from Chicago, after playing piano on a recording and video shoot for composer Patrick Zimmerli’s Children of Bronzeville project.
“I’d always wanted to write for strings in some capacity, though I didn’t have a specific theme or project, and after the gig I asked if they’d ever want to collaborate,” Sung continues. Over the next 18 months, she applied for several grants to do a project with the Harlem Quartet. Finally, in March 2020, right before the COVID shutdown, NYC Women’s Fund — which exclusively targets women working in the arts — informed Sung they’d accepted her proposal to make a recording of music by only women.
“So this record was conceived and created during the pandemic,” she says. “I still can’t believe it all came together.”
Over the next 12 months, Sung culled repertoire and began composing at her piano, violin by her side. Rather than write for the personalities of her personnel, she aimed to create music that “would be challenging for them to play, but also engaging and interesting — and hopefully sounds and makes you feel good,” she says. “I didn’t know the string quartet well enough yet, as we’d only done those two gigs with [clarinetist] Eddie Daniels, and I’ve only recently had consistency in band personnel with the small circle of people I always call.”
A few weeks before the April sessions, Sung beta-tested the pieces on a Jazz at Lincoln Center livestream from Dizzy’s Club. “I was lucky to have that chance,” she says. “I’m a tinkerer — it always takes a minute for the music to settle into a more ‘final’ form. Jazz charts are so blank in many ways. You barely have dynamic markings, maybe some articulation, whereas with classical parts you have to be specific with bowing, accents and dynamics.”
On the other hand, Sung adds, “I wanted the solo sections to have room to grow beyond the record. I’ve played in musical settings where the solo sections are very defined, and you can’t travel too far afield. Having a classical aesthetic as part of the music would make that scenario very possible, and I wanted the music I wrote to avoid that trap. My hope is to play this music a lot in public, and I want it to have breathing room, to be able to go different places.”
Maybe it’s a stretch to see Sung’s musical bilingualism as analogous to the achievement of Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, who wrote his masterworks in English despite not learning the language until he was 21. But maybe it isn’t.
Sung’s first language in notes and tones was Euro-classical, which she played exclusively from kindergarten until her junior year of college on both violin and cello. Her parents, both retired, are Chinese immigrants who met initially in Taiwan, where their families had relocated from Andong in northern China (father) and Kweilin in southern China (mother) after the Communist revolution in 1949. Her father worked as a civil engineer, her mother was a registered nurse. They gave the oldest of their four children lessons after seeing her “play melodies off the radio or TV on a little red plastic toy piano run by batteries.”
“They were in very practical, stable professions,” says Sung, who was born and raised in Houston, Texas. “I don’t think they had any high aspirations for me, other than wanting to be successful, which to them was signified by winning competitions, like the parents of a lot of fellow Asian pianists and violinists. But I think what started it wasn’t ‘This is something we do,’ but that they noticed my interest. I remember being in class at 5, playing a song on violin from the Suzuki method or whatever, and getting a feeling of déjà vu, like, ‘I know how this feels; I know how this should work.’ I already knew how to read music.”
“I think I stopped taking violin lessons by high school — I felt my teacher was too nice to me. I always felt an ease on the piano that I never felt on the violin, like it had a bigger world. My first piano teacher gave me a strong technique, and from 9 through high school I studied piano with a very controlling Russian teacher who said unapologetically that classical music is the only legitimate music – everything else is ‘rubbish.’”
That teacher’s dogma, and Sung’s upbringing of “wanting to please and be obedient, don’t bring shame to the family,” militated against her exploring jazz when she attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which housed an “amazing program” — just across the hall from her classical classroom — where present-day luminaries like pianist Jason Moran and drummer Chris Dave were then marinating.
“I remember playing Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades, with all these melismas — many notes in the right hand against the regular left hand — and thinking of how many right hand notes should go with each left hand note to fit them all in time,” Sung says. “Now, I see that’s just written-out improvisation. I remember playing these written-out cadenzas in concertos with orchestras, which felt weird — a cadenza means you’re just making stuff up, so I’d try to play it like someone is making it up. I got to play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Houston Pops, and felt a flexibility in the music — maybe because my classical teacher wasn’t so ‘That’s how you do it’ because she wasn’t as familiar with it.”
Sung’s “first act of rebellion” transpired late during her undergraduate years at the University of Texas at Austin, where she received a bachelor of music degree in classical piano in 1993 (and her masters in ’95). “My life felt planned out and I wasn’t that excited about where I was going, but then I shoved that feeling to the side,” she recalls. “I thought the path was get your degrees and then find a university teaching position. I was practicing eight hours a day in a practice room; I wanted to perform, to play — but it didn’t seem possible. At that point in the curriculum, you either took orchestration or counterpoint. All the piano students were taking orchestration because counterpoint was too hard, but I wanted to do something different, plus the counterpoint teacher was also my theory teacher and I loved him. Amazingly, I survived it.”
Around this time, Sung heard Harry Connick Jr. channel New Orleans piano giants James Booker and Professor Longhair in a solo piano segment during a big band concert at UT. She was wowed. Then she heard a trio concert by faculty member Jeffrey Hellmer and enrolled in his beginning jazz piano trio class. Although she was, as she puts it, “nervous, uptight and unable to swing,” she persisted, borrowing Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones, Len Lyons’ Conversations With the Great Pianists and Gene Lees’ Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s from the UT library, then listening to records by the interviewees. Hellmer accepted her for lessons.
“The jazz program was small, so I was allowed to do stuff that I probably wasn’t ready for,” she says. “That was probably the best way; otherwise, I’d have been dipping my toe in and out. They threw me in — just do it.”
[caption id="attachment_42198" align="alignleft" width="1731"] Helen Sung (center left) with members of The Helen Sung Group and The Harlem Quartet[/caption]
By 1995, Sung was fluent enough to be admitted into the first-ever class of the Thelonious Monk Institute, where her teachers included Clark Terry, Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath, Barry Harris and Jon Faddis. “That put my development on warp speed,” she says. “Those masters didn’t beat around the bush. This music was life and death to them. They gave us paths to follow, to investigate. They gave us lifelines. They loved jazz that much, and they loved us enough to want us to get it right — and I fell in love with it. Jazz brings me alive in a way few other things do. I’m also super-stubborn and can have tunnel vision. When I want something, no one will be able to pry my fingers off … until I’m dead.
“The Russian classical teacher left me at a dead end — Bach and Chopin, who I love, would always be out of my reach. I’m a perfectionist; I felt, ‘If I can’t do it, why bother?’ Looking back, I am happy to now feel that I have a right to play Chopin, too, the way I hear it and how I want it to sound.”
Quartet + and Sung With Words palpably reflect Sung’s hard-won attitude of creative entitlement. Addressing the latter project, Sung — a voracious prose reader since childhood who “always felt like the only person in the room who didn’t understand what a poem was saying” — describes an epiphany similar to her jazz conversion. “Dana [Gioia] told me poetry is supposed to be experienced out loud, like music,” she says. “He told me not to worry so much about the literal meaning, but just listen to the words as sound — the rhythm, the consonants, the vowels — as you would to music. Then the meaning will come at you sideways. Then I tried to write melodies to poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Edith Wharton — and it was amazing. Now when I read poetry, I love that it’s ambiguous. It’s like a mystery that comes to you when you’re ready for it.”
She hurled herself into the composing process for Quartet + with equivalent brio. “I just winged it,” Sung says. “I start from what I do know, but I’m also trying to reach for what I don’t know. I know what I like, what I want it to sound like, kind of, and I’m groping towards that, like venturing into unknown territory. When I was a classical pianist, I thought ‘Composers write the music and pianists play it.’ I’ve never taken composition lessons, and I want somebody to put me through the paces — ‘Do this, do that, do this.’ Something more, something better, is always possible with music, and we serve that aspiration. I think that’s part of the jazz mindset.”
Sung brought that jazz-bred attitude of resourcefulness and fresh thinking to her current commission, a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition grant that is bankrolling a big band project, and to her latest teaching gig, a Mary Lou Williams survey for Jazz at Lincoln Center. And she applied lessons learned during a recent artist-in-residence stint at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Behavior Institute to a potentially gnarly circumstance that arose during Zimmerli’s Bronzeville session in Chicago.
“The finale involved a children’s chorus,” she explains. “One young singer had a solo on a scalar line, and she kept making it an arpeggio. We would stop and sing her the line the way it was supposed to be sung. She would sing it correctly, but the minute she had to sing it in context, she’d immediately revert back to that other way. She’d established a neural pathway for how she wanted to sing it. There were some jazz singers on the gig, and I asked one of them to sing it with her in context. I wasn’t sure if this would work. We did it over and over, but with the jazz singer singing it correctly in context with her. Then I said, ‘Let’s just loop it.’ And she got it! It’s like we rewired that network in her brain.”
That spur-of-the-moment intervention reflects Sung’s gradually emerging consciousness of her transition within the jazz ecosystem from “young up-and-comer who wants to do my thing” to “mentor figure” who people — especially female aspirants — look up to. “Someone organized a women-only seminar where a young lady who attended Juilliard when I taught there mentioned that she’d asked for access to me, but was told I wasn’t doing lessons,” Sung says. “She wasn’t able to reach me. I think she was one of two or three female students at the time. When it came my turn to speak, I didn’t expect to say what I said: ‘I feel I have to apologize to you. When I taught at Juilliard, it was just one of many things I was doing at the time. I went in there, I did my thing and I left. I should have sought you out, because I should have known that experience wouldn’t be easy for you, and I’m sorry I didn’t do that — because I was just consumed with my own thing.’ I teared up a little bit. Then I realized that I do have something to offer these young ladies. Then I agreed to mentor for the Women in Jazz organization last year. So I’m taking these baby steps into functioning more in that role.” Has Sung’s successful career path assuaged her parents’ doubts about music for her as a profession? “They see how happy I am doing it, and I’ve done some things that they could relate to as signs of success, so that’s chilled them out a lot,” she says. “Paying my bills — that’s immigrant-practical. When the PBS program In Performance at the White House aired on Channel 8 in Houston, my folks actually told some of their friends. Although the first thing my mom said to me after she watched it was, ‘You need to smile more when you play.’”