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03/22/14

Helen Sung
Anthem for a New Day

You could put together a line item description of this album that would fit a significant percentage of current jazz releases. Band: ad hoc. Tunes: mostly originals, a few standards. Genre: new-millennium mainstream. Bases: covered (Monk, Afro-Latin, ballads, burners). Extras: some famous guests.

But the devil is always in the details. Anthem for a New Day is exceptionally tight, smart and intense. It jolts out of your speakers (or, nowadays, your earbuds) from the opening bars of the opening track, “Brother Thelonious.” Pianist Helen Sung, tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen careen together over the spiky theme. Then they all solo like their hair is on fire, but concisely.

Sung earned a master’s degree in classical music before she found jazz, which she now plays with extravagant chops and the zeal of a late convert. Her sixth album presents a new emphasis on the roles of composer, arranger, ensemble conceptualist and bandleader. “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is a witty inversion that turns Ellington into an arch classical etude and refuses to swing, until it swings like crazy. Sung arranges her own piercing melodic line, “Hidden,” into movements with openings for vivid interactions between guest violinist Regina Carter, Jensen and Sung on Rhodes. Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba,” with guest Paquito D’Rivera on clarinet, is an ecstatic, swirling, pounding celebration. Throughout the program, drummer Obed Calvaire and percussionist Samuel Torres are agile and detailed. Bassist Reuben Rogers is free, proactive and prominent.

There is a hierarchy of great piano versions of “Never Let Me Go,” with Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett at the top. Sung is now on the list. Her piano postulates the melody in fragments. Carter and Rogers respond, alone or together, sometimes leaving the song in the distance but always reinforcing the passion of its plea.

Originally published in March 2014
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