Fresh Sound New Talent
Pianist Helen Sung’s new album is a treat. How could it not be, given that it covers a veritable history of soulful music, from James P. Johnson to Thelonious Monk to Prince? Sung, perhaps eager to prove herself in a crowded field of young jazz pianists, takes on a wide range of material on the immodestly named Helenistique and comes off as a versatile, imaginative and assertive musician.
She bookends her album with takes of “H*Town,” a concise tribute to Houston, her hometown. It’s an off-kilter piece of music that she plays with a muscular style, bashing the chords when they deserve it. She wears her affinity for Monk on her sleeve, both in her writing and in her renditions of “Sweet and Lovely” and “Bye Ya,” the latter of which she reconstructs with shifting time signatures while avoiding the trap of mimicking Monk’s style. (Monk may very well be her patron saint: Sung was a member of the inaugural class of the New England Conservatory’s Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance and was a semifinalist in the 1999 Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano competition.) What she does with the standards is equally interesting. She pays a minute of respect to Rodgers & Hart’s “Lover” before speeding the tempo and spiking the tune with dizzying runs. The disc concludes with a bang. Bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Lewis Nash sit out for Johnson’s “Carolina Shout,” as Sung puts on a stride clinic, and the trio turns funky with a stab at Prince’s who-knew-it-could-be-jazz “Alphabet Street.” Helenistique is among the year’s most exciting listens.