Anthem for a New Day-- Helen Sung

Helen Sung began studying classical piano at the age of five, and it wasn't until years later at the University of Texas that she discovered jazz and transitioned over to jazz courses while receiving both a Bachelor and Master's of Music in Classical Piano Performance. She then applied for and was one of just seven students accepted into the inuagural two-year program of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Boston, directed by Ron Carter. After gigging around Boston and New York, the first of Sung's six albums to date, Push, was released in 2003. Sung considers Anthem for a New Day, as referenced by the name of the title tune, to be a breakthrough of sorts for her musically. "Now I feel like it's all starting to come together-- in my playing, my improvisation, my writing, and with my arranging," she has declared. The pianist was aided immeasurably on this project by a group that includes saxophonist Seamus Blake, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Obed Calvaire, and percussionist Samuel Torres, as well as guest luminaries Regina Carter on violin and Paquito D'Rivera on clarinet. They traverse a program of substantial Sung originals plus pieces by Chick Corea, Duke Ellington, Evans / Livingston, and Thelonious Monk, including a striking arrangement of the latter's "Epistrophy."

"Brother Thelonious" was originally commissioned as a kind of theme song for the Belgian ale of that name crafted by a California brewery, and this version finds Blake and Jensen play the engaging hard bop theme, which in truth is not very Monk-like. Jensen's solo is juicy and polished, while Blake's wails with a brawny sound and authoritative command. Sung follows them with a driving momentum and daring twists and turns, and Rogers has a sure-footed say on the out chorus after the reprise of a head that Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers would have devoured with relish. It's just Sung, D'Rivera's clarinet, and Torres' cajon, with overdubbed handclaps and foot stomps, for "Armando's Rhumba," and it really works. The solos and interplay between piano and clarinet, and the infectious cross-rhythms, produce a memorable interpretation of Corea's enduring tune. Sung's ringing Fender Rhodes (a first for her on CD) introduces her lovely ballad "Hidden," with Carter's heartfelt violin articulating the melody. Jensen's pliant, rippling solo leads to Sung's touching and stirring lyricism. Calvaire and Torres' thrustful percussive blend is the not-so-secret extra ingredient within, and the only regret is the lack of a Carter improv.

Sung's classically influenced prelude to "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" gives way to Rogers' thoughtful bass interlude, before the briefly striding leader kicks it into swinging gear, but only teasingly. Her whirlwind solo is progressively modern and Latin-tinged, and its forceful resolution concludes this fresh and unusual piano trio adaptation of the Ellington classic. The soulfully bittersweet theme of "Hope Springs Eternally" is first portrayed by Sung alongside Rogers' empathetic bass patterns, and then Blake's rich soprano chimes in to outline it once again and expand upon it profoundly. Sung's perceptive statement is much too succinct, but her interaction with Blake after the reprise makes up for it somewhat. "Anthem for a New Day" is launched by the subtle tones of Sung's Rhodes and the ethereal pairing of Blake and Jensen, with a cameo appearance by John Ellis' lurking bass clarinet. This all precedes the declarative, jabbing theme and a string of unfettered solos from Blake's tenor, Jensen, and Sung, and a second welcome helping by each. A pair of heady, persistent vamps and Calvaire's aggressively combustible drumming add to the no-holds-barred propulsion of this deservedly chosen title track.

The pianist's arrangement of "Never Let Me Go" is harmonically astute, with tenor and violin playing enticing unison motifs beneath her lilting rendition of the melody. Rogers' resounding solo beautifully captures the yearning essence of the standard, and Sung's thematic expansion is graced by still more of Blake and Carter's lustrous fills. "Chaos Theory" is boisterous and tumultuous from the onset, with a spiraling, staccato theme from Blake on soprano. The ensuing interplay between him and Sung recalls Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock in free form flight. Calvaire's ongoing commentary is riveting in and of itself, especially when he fleetingly steps to the forefront. This exciting quartet escapade is an example of controlled chaos, artfully rendered. Calvaire's insistent preamble, combined with Rogers' assertive structures and the two horns' held notes, eventually advance to the fresh-voiced reworking of Monk's "Epistrophy." Sung's bluesy solo receives funky shout outs from Blake and Jensen prior to the former's unleashing of a winding, jaunty examination. The reprise reaffirms the rightness of the liberties Sung has taken in her arrangement-- which, of course, is the essence of jazz. One of pianist Stanley Cowell's best known compositions, "Equipoise," serves as the solo piano closing track, with Sung gracefully and beneficially delineating the tune's elegant charm in a pensive two minutes.

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Scott Albin