By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Helen Sung.
Jazz is a traveling artform, or at least for pianist Helen Sung it is. As the leader of her own quartet based in New York City, Sung has taken her beloved style of music to places that aren’t as saturated with the genre as where she calls home. And she has no plans of stopping, really.
She’s finding that each place she takes her brand of jazz to also has its own unique style and flavor.
Having recently returned from a pilgrimage to India for a jazz festival, BTR was able to speak with Sung in the studio as she was fighting off the impending jetlag to which she “needs to stay jetlagged” before heading on another voyage to Osaka, Japan.
The festival that Sung was invited to play is called “Jus’ Jazz” which is in its third year. She describes the men who curated the festival as “a couple of guys who just love jazz music and really wanna make a place for it in India,” namely Sunil Sampat and Pradip Bahtia. Though many think of India as a place of Bollywood music, film, and dance which are a few of its greater cultural exports, Sung wants it to be known that India has more recently been a place with its own jazz style and appreciators.
“I think where [jazz] is in the world, it definitely should have its own slant. That’s one of the coolest things about jazz music. I always call it one of the most generous art forms, it’s able to retain its center and integrity while being able to undergo so many different versions or flavors,” said Sung on the genre and its global reach. “I think jazz in India is experiencing a resurgence, I think right now they’re basically just studying ‘What is Jazz?’ and really listening to the masters of the music and building on the history. India has its own incredible legacy of music, what with the ragas and that whole world, I’m sure that will be part of their take on jazz.”
Helen Sung started playing classical piano and violin in Houston at the age of 5, being born to two Chinese immigrants who moved to Texas for graduate schooling. Her mother recalls Sung getting her start on an electronic keyboard that “I used to carry under my arm that had twelve multi-colored keys,” to which she would repeat melodies that she heard on the radio. Her parents saw this keen interest and talent, so they started sending her to lessons. (Though Sung secretly suspects that they regret this because it meant her not being a doctor.)
Sung recounts the moment she knew she wanted to start playing jazz. She was studying at UT Austin and a friend “dragged me to a Harry Connick Jr. concert.” She described herself at the time as a “typical classical pianist, practiced 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the practice room.” He was with his band but during the middle of the set, he sat down with a piano and played some solo pieces, rendering Sung “shocked and floored.”
She described his style as “banging on the piano in a way that I was taught never to do” with an energy that made her want to “jump out of my skin.” This initial concert piqued Sung’s interest in jazz music eventually leading her to an acceptance into the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
Since then, Sung has been chasing after her own authentic jazz sound and identity as “not just someone who could get by.”
She describes exactly what she was and still is going after: “What is unique about jazz is that swing; that swing feeling, that swing rhythm. It’s something that I feel like I’ll be chasing for the rest of my life; that groove, that thing that gets you off your feet and gets your foot tapping. Also, really being able to swing, really being able to improvise, understanding truly how that works versus just being able to play a lot of notes just ‘cause I could.’”
On the pursuit of jazz’s swing and in-the-pocket rhythms, Sung references the late Mulgrew Miller who once said, “You just keep finding deeper and deeper layers,” hinting that whatever Sung is looking for will never truly be captured because there is always more to it.
The rhythm of creating for Helen Sung is also a code that she has yet to crack, as the way she works has no set formula. Though she has no “definitive process,” she says she likes to follow a rhythmic motif, a melodic theme” or a harmonic progression after which it will come to her in Sung’s “mind’s ear.”
She works at her piano trying to “sketch a setting” for the song to be in but this method of hers is not set in stone as she wishes there was a consistency to her creations but she really describes the writing process as “a struggle, a birthing process.” As she is always in the pursuit of new musical knowledge, she has recently taken to composition classes that are introducing her to “new concepts and ways of thinking which have turned me on my head.”
Spinning the idea of an inconsistent creative process, Sung says, “I think there’s something mysterious about music, there’s magic and it’s not something you can quantify completely, not in my experience.”
Helen Sung’s last official release in 2011 was called Re-Conception though she is slated to release her new album Anthem For a New Day on January 28th, 2014 on Concord Records. Re-Conception was released as an album of covers of musicians ranging from Duke Ellington to Burt Bacharach. Anthem will mostly be originals by the Helen Sung Trio.
“There’s something different about Anthem because I have five albums as a leader and with all those albums I feel I was still, in a sense, trying on different skins,” she says of her back catalogue, as compared to her latest effort. What I mean by that is you have a lot of well-meaning teachers and mentors and of course, the voices in your own head, that say, ‘You need to be more this, and you need to be more that’ but with Anthem I feel like I’m at a place where I’m more confident and I’m more comfortable with who I am as an artist now. With this record, I feel like I’m saying, ‘This is me. For better or for worse, this is Helen Sung. This is where I am and where I’m headed.’”
When asked about where she thinks jazz in general is headed she says, “I don’t know, but I feel like it’s headed somewhere good.”
To help Helen Sung search for the swing, click here.
Check out Helen Sung’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.