Helen Sung: Words and Music

On Sung With Words, the pianist teams with poet Dana Gioia to meld poetry and jazz

Helen Sung at the 2018 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Helen Sung at the 2018 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

One of the most interesting collaborations in recent years between a world-class jazz musician and an acclaimed poet—the album Sung With Words—got off to a rocky start.

Several years ago, the pianist Helen Sung played in the West Wing of the White House at an event organized by the formerly named Thelonious Monk Institute (now the Herbie Hancock Institute). At dinner afterward, she was seated next to Dana Gioia, the noted poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Sung didn’t know who he was. “I remember looking at his name tag because I got there before him and just thinking, ‘What a weird last name—four vowels in a row?’” she recalls. “And I thought it was a woman, too. What guy do I know has the name Dana?”

When Gioia introduced himself as a poet, she admitted that she really didn’t like poetry. It reminded her, she told Gioia—the poet laureate of California—of assignments in school, when she felt like she was the only one in the room who didn’t get it but was too embarrassed to say anything. “I told her that was silly,” says Gioia, now 68. “Because, as a musician, you know exactly how to listen to poetry, and you should just listen to it the way you listen to music.”

She took that advice and began to appreciate poetry and connect with it. It got her thinking about how to integrate poetry with her music, but not in the usual way of a poet reading and the musicians vamping underneath. “I realized I had a taste for a certain kind of poem, a certain type of brevity,” she says. “It was fascinating. Eventually I told him, ‘You know what? We should write some songs together.’” A lover of jazz who has worked with musicians like his brother Ted, the author and pianist, Gioia was game. “I think it can be fair to say that neither Helen nor I knew what we were getting into—not in a bad way, just in a literal way,” he says.

Supported by a grant from Chamber Music America, Sung got to work, but she was determined for it not to sound like work. “I really want to write music that’s fun and not so much of that ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I don’t get poetry’ vibe,” she says. She was also able to tap her earlier studies at the Monk Institute, where she learned from legends like Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, and Herbie Hancock. “When I was studying at the Monk Institute, I remember the jazz masters would always say, ‘Make sure you read the lyrics so you at least know what the songs are about.’ And I did do that, but it would be hard for me to remember them, so I would sing them when I practiced.” She started paying closer attention to songwriters in popular music, particularly some of her favorite artists like Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, and Meshell Ndegeocello. “I want people to be able to hum these melodies when they leave [a concert],” Sung explains.

Songwriting teams invariably get asked the question: “What came first—the music or the lyrics?” For this team it worked both ways, with Gioia sometimes writing a poem that Sung then adapted into a song and sometimes writing a poem based on a phrase or musical idea from Sung. The album track “Too Bad” is a case in point. “I played this rhythm for [Gioia] which to him felt like a duple meter,” Sung explains, “and he wrote ‘Too bad, so sad/You’re such a fool/To make me mad/Romance? No chance/You lost your turn to dance.’ But when he gave the poem back to me, I had forgotten about that [rhythm] and so my song was in three!” The recorded version keeps that time signature but adapts it to a lightly skipping Latin-ish beat.

For the funkier, organ-laced “Mean What You Say,” Sung gave the opening phrase—prompted by her annoyance with a friend’s unreliability—to Gioia and asked him to write a poem about it. But it didn’t come easy. “For some of the songs, I must’ve written a hundred versions, a hundred different melodies before I [chose one],” she says. “It was such a journey to finding songs, so I’m really excited and proud of the project.”

Many jazz instrumentalists decide mid-career to take up singing, with mixed results; Sung steadfastly avoided that route. Instead, she enlisted the help of a coterie of jazz singers with varying styles and approaches. Jean Baylor, Charenee Wade, Carolyn Leonhart, and Christie Dashiell handle the vocals on Sung With Words, and Gioia reads several of the poems as interstitial pieces. “I had thought I was going to get two vocalists but ended up with four, so I feel extra lucky,” Sung says. (She’s also joined on the album by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist/bass clarinetist John Ellis, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Kendrick Scott, among others.)

One thing’s for sure: Sung has changed her tune on the subject of poetry. She’s learned to love it, in large part thanks to Gioia’s initial advice. And like Gioia, she wants to be an advocate for both jazz and poetry. “Jazz is an art form where it’s so rich and so deep, so many people sacrificed so much to contribute and make it what it is today, and I think it’s the same for poetry,” she says. “I feel like the bar is set so low these days. If we could just ask more of ourselves and more of each other as people, I think things would just be so much better.”

Top photo: Helen Sung at the 2018 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. Photo by Sharonne Cohen.