Helen Sung is having a banner year. She has been performing with the Mingus Big Band and has recorded and toured with Meg Okura and the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble. The album with the latter group was “Music of Ryuichi Sakamoto.” Helen’s performance on that album was stellar.
Now she is releasing her own album, “Anthem for a New Day.” It is her sixth album as a leader and her first with Concord Music Group. Her very first recording was in 2003 and served as her leap from the classical to Jazz piano.
“With my previous albums,” she says, “I was searching, experimenting—not that that ever ends. But this is the first project where I feel the most comfortable with who I am as an artist, where I am as an artist, and what I am doing as an artist.” When she thinks of “anthems,” she says she thinks of flags or banners. This album, then, is her “planting my flag in the ground.”
That flag is not planted—it is anchored in bedrock. This is proven immediately by taking on the giants of Corea, Ellington and Monk. She is not a neophyte who is over-reaching; she is a young master asserting her right to be in the midst of the masters.
“Brother Thelonious” leads off the album. It was originally composed as a theme song for a Belgian ale. It is certainly a tribute and is, in many ways, in perfect keeping with Monk the master. The composition itself is absolutely Monkish. The stops and starts, the generosity of space—all so Monk.
She is accompanied brilliantly by Reuben Rogers on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums and Samuel Torres on percussion. The horn section of Seamus Blake (sax) and Ingrid Jansen (trumpet) is superb. The is musical chemistry of the highest order.
“Armando’s Rumba” gives Helen and the band the chance to launch into Latin Jazz and they do not miss a thing. Composed by Chick Corea, Helen handles the arrangement splendidly. The Latin rhythms and the punchy piano phrasing is wonderful.
At :28 into the piece, however, a great surprise awaits as a clarinet joins in. The tone and delivery is unquestionable. The great Paquito Di Rivera joins for this track only but what an addition. He is eminently well-placed and delivers as only he does.
Does Helen take liberties with her versions of others’ compositions? Indeed she does and thank heaven for it. She writes in the liner notes: “Jazz is always about real life with all its joys and heartbreaks; it’s earthy and soulful, it’s messy and full of surprises, and it’s fun!” She most assuredly brings her own joy, soulfulness and fun into each composition and arrangement. She makes Chick’s tune into her own and she makes her tunes your own. In other words, she places straight into the heart.
She moves to the Fender Rhodes for “Hidden,” an original composition and is joined by the delicate violin of Regina Carter. Rogers and Calvaire show themselves wonderfully suited for every style she employs.
“Hidden” is languid and reflective. Jensen’s trumpet is almost stream-of-consciousness in this fascinating piece. It is disjointedly melodic in the most charming ways.
Then from the fascinating she carries over to the fabled. Duke Ellington and Irving Mills’ “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” ia easily one of the most recognizable songs in Jazz history and Helen takes it straight on and bends it to her will.
Helen introduces the song on solo piano and includes stunning flourishes with a classical approach. Her classicism shows itself beautifully on this track. Then she turns to stride before the group joins. Reuben Rogers gets and early spotlight on bass before the group in earnest “gets that swing.” Helen uses the full potential of Rogers and Calvaire throughout the whole album but this trio shines astoundingly on this track. Together, these musicians prove the truth of that song’s title.
“Hope Springs Eternally” is another Helen Sung original. Seamus Blake’s sax is a sweet feature of the song. Obed Clavaire performs superbly in his rhythmic choices. Helen’s melodic choices are exquisite.
She introduces the piece with a six-note motif which gets carried by the bass and piano alternately through the piece. At one point, she all-too-briefly unveils a Vince Guaraldi-style passage that is the essence of hope.
Seamus Blake is featured on soprano sax in the piece and he shines. From an album full of rewarding pieces, “Hope Springs Eternally” is a standout.
“Anthem for a New Day” is—by name, by track position and by composition—the centerpiece of the album. It starts off with the Fender Rhodes initiating a slightly melancholy theme that sounds of Gershwin. That theme is picked up and echoed by John Ellis on bass clarinet in his only appearance on the album.
The movement of the piece moves from Gershwin-esque to Be bop into a bit of fusion before landing squarely in Helen’s unique voice. It has a cool groove with piano, bass and drums plus hot solos for the horns. The rhythm section is simply electrifying—great groove and drive. The corps conclusion is exciting stuff.
It is confident, adventurous composing carried out with flawless performance. Helen does indeed set her banner with this piece.
“Never Let Me Go” was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for the 1956 film, “The Scarlet Hour,” and Helen’s treatment is subtle and sweet. It is melodically and lyrically closer to the original than any of the other covers on the album.
The rhythm section is equally subtle and the horns with them add a breadth and depth that enhances Regina Carter’s violin moving ascent. Above it all is Helen’s most delicate touch.
One of the most interesting pieces is Helen’s “Chaos Theory” with its varied times and phrasings. The trades between Helen and Seamus and underscored by some of the most furious pacing by Reuben and Obed.
There is certainly order amidst this chaos as Helen’s piano anchors the infinite spin-offs of the various artists. Those chaotic cadenzas are enthralling from each and every performer. At the end, you hear someone say loudly, “That’s Jazz music, right there!” as Helen laughs in the background.
Helen then offers her rendition—her magnificent rendition—of the Thelonious Monk standard “Epistrophy.” In this alone does she prove her confidence and comfort, that she has found her voice in the arrangements of Chick, Duke and, now, Monk.
The effect of horns and the Fender Rhodes overtop bass and cymbals is intoxicating and is a cool introduction to the melody. That unmistakable melody that is Monk.
“Epistrophy” has been called the first classical Jazz composition.” Classical? Yes. Modern? Yes. Now Helen Sung has pulled the 1942 piece further along the modern road, if not even post-modern. The sequenced harmony and melody is treated hotly by Helen and the horns.
Musicians have tried and quite often failed in attempting to cover Thelonious Monk but Helen Sung and those with her have neither copied nor betrayed Monk and have, instead, achieved a momentous feat in what they have rendered of Monk.
Stanley Cowell’s “Equipoise” closes the album. It is the only solo piano track on the entire album and it concludes the recording with great delicacy, grace and a fervent desire for more. It is a lyrical piece and it belongs to Helen. The fade-out leaves an intense sense of longing.
With this, her seventh album, Helen Sung has reached a moment of great achievement. She is confident, comfortable and absolutely charming. She has most definitely given us an Anthem for a New Day.
"Anthem for a New Day" is set for release on January 28, 2014 on the Concord Music Group label (CJA 34496-02). Go to Concordmusicgroup.com for more information.
The CD can be ordered at Amazon.com.
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