Oct 27, 2021
Pianist Helen Sung’s recorded work has grown more esoteric over the past few years – a duet album with trumpeter Marquis Hill (vinyl only) and a collaboration with poet Dana Gioia (Sung With Words). One of her first releases, Sungbird, showed her classical chops. These albums show us a young artist willing to continue to push the envelope and move beyond the sounds of a successful band-oriented effort.
On her latest album Quartet+, Helen is again moving in new directions. While the core of her previous bands – saxophonist and flutist John Ellis and drummer Kendrick Scott – return, she adds bassist David Wong and the strings of the Harlem Quartet. The result is a celebration of the work of influential women composers, crafting new arrangements of tunes by Geri Allen, Carla Bley, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland and Toshiko Akiyoshi. And to make sure she got it right, violinist Regina Carter comes on board as a co-producer. The resulting album allows her to lead this group of musicians to explore new aspects of many of the tunes, never fearing to steer away from the standard structure or style of the originals.
A 2021 Guggenheim fellow, Ms. Sung attended Houston’s renowned High School for the Performing & Visual Arts (HSPVA) and continued her classical piano studies at the University of Texas at Austin. As you’ll hear in our conversation, attending a Harry Connick Jr concert made her rethink the way the piano can be played, and she went on to graduate from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance (at the New England Conservatory) and win the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition. It’s been onward and upward since then, as she has released eight previous albums as a leader, and supported Marcus Printup, Ronnie Cuber, Clark Terry and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on other records.
Podcast 858 is my conversation with Helen Sung, as we discuss Quartet+, how she handled the pandemic shut-down, and where she is headed. The next few years promise to be very busy, as she will apply her Guggenheim Fellowship to a multi-movement piece for big band slated for completion in 2022. With a Chamber Music America Digital Residency grant, she’s producing a series of events this year using the tragic recent attacks on the AAPI community as a catalyst for interdisciplinary events with her quartet and a poet, a DJ and an installation artist. Sung also received a New Music USA 2021 Music Creator Development Fund grant for a collaborative project with dancer and neuro-rehabilitation researcher Miriam King to create a dance program with original music for dementia/Alzheimer’s patients. Music selections from Quartet+ include “