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Helen Sung: When Helen Met Harry

As a student at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Helen Sung was being groomed to become a classical pianist when she experienced her first jazz epiphany, sending her radically off course and careening headlong into a new musical world.

“Thinking back, other than seeing Peanuts and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on TV, I probably didn’t hear any jazz at all growing up,” she recalls. “And later on I was just very focused on the classical thing, always in the practice room. So I didn’t know who Miles was or Monk, Bird or anyone else, I’m embarrassed to say.”

Instead, her entry into jazz came from another source. “This friend of mine in high school was really nuts about Harry Connick Jr.,” she explains, “and I didn’t really know who he was either, but he was bringing his big band to town and my friend said, ‘You have to come with me to the concert.’ So I went, and the big band was cool. But in the middle of the concert Harry played a few solo-piano pieces. And the way he played just really struck me. I didn’t know you could play the piano like that. And it seemed like he was having a lot of fun too, which was totally foreign to me, having been trained under this strict Russian classical teacher.”

Following that eye-opening concert, Helen and a group of her school pals decided to enroll in an “Intro to Jazz” class. “Picture all these classical nerds in this class trying to swing and improvise,” she laughs. But Sung persevered and hearing Tommy Flanagan improvise on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” (the title track on an Enja recording featuring bassist George Mraz and drummer Elvin Jones) opened her up even more to this new music. “I think jazz got me in a way that classical never did,” says the New York resident who has become one of jazz’s most promising young talents.

In 1995, Sung attended the inaugural class of the Thelonious Monk Institute at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she studied with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Danilo Perez. “Those guys were tough, but I appreciated it,” she says. “Because these jazz masters, they tell you the truth. I remember Jon Faddis said to me one time, ‘Helen, I’m sorry, you need to listen to the blues. You don’t have enough of that in your playing.’ And that set me off on a whole new journey. It takes courage and care to tell people stuff like that. But I appreciated that and I always will.”

A semifinalist in the 1999 Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano competition, Sung debuted as a leader in 2003 with Push. On Helenistique, her second outing for Fresh Sound New Talent, she turns in inventive takes on Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail” and standards like “Willow Weep for Me,” “Sweet and Lovely” and “Where or When.” She also interprets Kenny Barron’s “Voyage,” Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcisssus” and Prince’s “Alphabet City,” imbuing each with creativity and a playful sense of reharmonization and rhythmic ingenuity (qualities perhaps best exemplified by her time-shifting rendition of Monk’s “Bye Ya”). Her classical technique comes out in her precise touch and impeccable time on James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout,” a proving ground for Harlem stride pianists during the ’30s. And she adds a bit of Les McCann-ish funk to the earthy “H*Town,” her only original on this sophomore outing.

Ably assisted by the stellar rhythm tandem of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Lewis Nash, Sung swings convincingly on Helenistique. “I work so hard on getting an authentic swing feel in my playing,” she says. “I think it’s going to be a lifelong work. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel like, ‘Yeah, I got it!’ But I know that it’s improving, so I’m thankful for that.”

Originally Published