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Before & After with Helen Sung

A classical master swayed by swing

Helen Sung
Helen Sung (photo: Margot Schulman)

Along with Beyoncé Knowles, Robert Glasper and Jason Moran, pianist Helen Sung is among the celebrated alumni of Houston, Texas’ High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. After preparing for a classical concert career, Sung fell in love with jazz, graduated from the Thelonious Monk Institute and went on to work with Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Regina Carter and T.S. Monk while also touring internationally with her own groups. We met for this midnight listening session following her quintet performance at the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in May. Sung’s next recording as a leader, Anthem for a New Day, her first for Concord Jazz, is scheduled for a January release.

1. Kenny Barron

“Triste” (from Kenny Barron & the Brazilian Knights, Sunnyside). Barron, piano; Lula Galvão, guitar. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: Really nice. It’s “Triste.” No bass and drums needed. It’s true: The whole orchestra is in the piano. You might think of piano and guitar in opposition occupying the same musical space, but it’s so nice to hear the two work so well together. I love the use of color, the range. You don’t feel anything is missing at all. I’m trying to figure out who it is. I was going to say Kenny Barron, but I didn’t hear the level of detail. If it’s Kenny, then maybe the guitarist is Romero Lubambo? It’s from that realm.

AFTER: I took a couple of lessons with Kenny when I was at the Monk Institute, and he’s one of my role models. His sound and his touch are so beautiful. This was a more restrained, less intricate performance than I might have expected. But to be simple and beautiful is difficult, so I respect that. Maybe as you travel along in your journey as an artist you become a greater distillation of what it is you are. And that’s not an easy thing they just did. His conception and his touch, sound and feel are quite formidable.

2. Ralph Alessi & Fred Hersch

“San Francisco Holiday” (from Only Many, CAM Jazz). Alessi, trumpet; Hersch, piano. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: That’s Fred Hersch, isn’t it? Is that a Monk tune? I love the intelligence and sense of humor in that performance. I’ve always admired Fred as an individual in his story, but also for his personal and unique approach to playing, especially solo piano. For me, to feel comfortable playing solo is like a Holy Grail I’ll be chasing for the rest of my life. He’s really found something that has depth and substance. And because I come from the classical world, I like how he approaches the instrument texturally and in different, creative ways. I remember when I was in the midst of grappling with learning to swing and play jazz, I had come from playing concertos and sonatas and I wanted to somehow bring that into my jazz playing. I feel Fred is doing that. He has a distinctive use of the whole range of the keyboard. He’s a great accompanist, a great solo player and he has all the jazz tradition you could want. Bravo.

Tell me about the trumpet player.

So in tune with what Fred is doing. It’s a unique approach. I know Fred has played with Ralph Alessi but I’m not that familiar with Mr. Alessi’s sound. It’s not fair when there’s a mute [laughs].

AFTER: Really? I only played with Ralph once, when he subbed in Lonnie Plaxico’s group. You can hear all of jazz in this; that’s what makes it work.

3. Tommy Flanagan & Jaki Byard

“Scrapple From the Apple” (from The Magic of 2, Resonance). Flanagan, Byard, piano. Recorded in 1982.

BEFORE: Classic bebop. This is what drew me to jazz in the first place, that kind of swing. It makes you want to move, and the lines are so beautiful, so timeless. These two pianists are playing that stuff inside out, quoting things. But they need to tune that piano [laughs]. It’s fun, raucous, intense. I appreciate the earthy rawness of the blues right alongside the elegance and sophistication of the bebop. I thought I heard a noise that Barry Harris makes, but I don’t recognize the lines. It’s somebody from that era. One of them is more bebop, the other one, the first long solo, is more raw blues. Maybe Larry Willis or John Hicks?

AFTER: Oh my God. Tommy Flanagan’s solo on “Confirmation” with George Mraz and Elvin Jones [off the 1978 Enja release Eclypso] is what inspired me to play this music. I like Jaki Byard’s abrupt quality; [it’s] really smart too. It’s music with a lot of goodwill behind it.

4. Gerald Clayton

“Shadamanthem” (from Life Forum, Concord Jazz). Clayton, piano; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Dayna Stephens, tenor saxophone; Joe Sanders, bass; Justin Brown, drums. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: This is more my era [laughs]. There’s a lot of intricacy with the recording, using a lot of techniques in the studio: cut-ins, add-ins and electronic stuff. And the composition is very modern. I enjoyed that-very pretty with shifting meters and bars of different lengths. It’s very smart music, heady, but lyrical and beautiful at the same time. It reminds me of someone who might have worked with Steve Coleman. It’s coming from somewhere else. It’s highly compositional with very distinct colors and angular soloing; I feel there’s a concept behind it, which is why I thought of Coleman.

AFTER: Oh, he’s fantastic. Great musician, great pianist. He’s been steeped in the music, probably since he was conceived. It’s all there. It’s got heart. It moves me. And I think the creative use of the recording process is really cool. So that was Ambrose? I enjoyed that. Thank you.

5. Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran

“God Only Knows” (from Hagar’s Song, ECM). Lloyd, saxophone; Moran, piano. Music by Brian Wilson. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: Sounds like a pop song. It’s short. Can I hear it again? The first time I listened to it I kept expecting it to turn into one standard or another. Pop songs have their own language too, and sometimes when jazz artists do a cover it becomes a cliché, but not here. I appreciated how much silence there is in that recording. That was really nice. It felt immediate, honest, uncontrived. It’s very different from the last thing we listened to, which was intricate and had so many moving parts. This just felt natural, organic.

AFTER: Wow. I would have never guessed that. Is that Brian Wilson’s song?

Charles recorded with the Beach Boys.

What? That’s so cool. And Jason plays with Charles.

6. Alicia de Larrocha

“Malagueña” (from Icon: Alicia de Larrocha, EMI Classics). De Larrocha, piano. Reissued in 2010.

BEFORE: [immediately] Alicia de Larrocha. I’m so sad that she’s gone. No one can play Spanish music like her. I know this so well. This is one of the recordings I listened to when I prepared the Sungbird (After Albeniz) project. I never got to hear her live. She was a tiny lady with small hands, but she tackled the repertoire and played it so fearlessly and with integrity. There’s such graciousness about her playing. No airs. Honest music making. I took this at a faster tempo; now I ask, why did I do that? [laughter] That’s such a cool, deliberate way of playing it-old-fashioned but in a very charming, hip kind of way.

If she were here with us right now, what would you ask her?

How did she do it with her small hands and her small frame? I would have loved to see how she physically played the instrument.

There are clips of her performances on YouTube.

I didn’t know that. I’m just afraid of getting lost in the whole sea of YouTube. I’m one of those addictive personality types. If I get into something, there’s no coming back [laughs].

So you don’t look at YouTube?

No. I remember when I was at the Monk Institute and jazz videos were so rare and we were amazed to see the clip of Miles on the Steve Allen Show. And now everything is available, and it’s so odd. I know if I start I’ll stay up for days watching that stuff. So I have to be careful [laughs]. But I want to see how she projects her sound.

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Originally Published