Helen Sung Highlights Pioneering Female Jazz Composers With New Album And “Quartet+” Tour
How many female role models did Helen Sung have when she began her transition to jazz at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classical piano performance in 1993 and 1995, respectively ?
In a word, none.
How many female role models did Sung have when she got a full scholarship for the inaugural class of Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in 1995?
Again, none, which is surprising given that his excellent new album, “Quartet +”, pays a heartfelt tribute to stellar artists – all pioneering pianists – like Mary Lou Williams, Carla Bley, Geri Allen and Marian McPartland .
“When I came to the Monk Institute, the focus was on (male) jazz masters, so those were my role models,” Sung recalls.
Some of these masters were also his teachers at the institute, including bass legend Ron Carter, saxophonist Jimmy Heath and pianist Sir Roland Hanna. While Sung was there, his institute student ensemble went on a concert tour with two other jazz masters, both male, pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
“I love and respect all great female jazz artists,” she said. “But I wasn’t looking at them while I was organizing. I was looking at the people the masters I was studying with told me to turn to, people like (piano giants) Bud Powell and Monk.
Sung has since served on the jazz faculties of Columbia University, The Juilliard School, and Berklee College of Music. She is now on a national tour which includes a concert in San Diego on Thursday at Dizzy’s for All Ages in Bay Park.
Jazz quartet and string quartet
The tour aims to promote “Quartet+”, his eighth and most recent album, released last September on Sunnyside Records. Six of his songs are by female artists and five are by Sung.
The final selection – aptly titled “A Grand Night for Swinging” – was written by Dr. Billy Taylor. He founded the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in 1996 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC Sung won first place at the festival in 2007.
“Quartet+” showcases her dynamic piano playing, increasingly confident songwriting skills, and her reverence for the work of Williams, Taylor, Bley, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and the other artists she lovingly salutes on the album. .
The album finds Sung rearranging their music for his quartet and the Harlem Quartet, which includes violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador and cellist Felix Umansky.
The result is a compelling synthesis of jazz and chamber music that is both fresh and steeped in tradition, while avoiding the tropes such fusions can produce. There’s almost nothing on “Quartet+” that suggests conventional Third Stream music, to invoke the phrase composer Gunther Schuller coined in 1957 to describe the fusion of jazz and classical.
“I know the work of Schuller and the tradition of the third current. But in terms of being familiar with Third Stream music, I’m not,” said Sung, a former violinist, speaking during a recent tour stop in Cincinnati.
“I have played the violin in a string quartet, youth symphonies and chamber and baroque ensembles. So, with this album, it’s more about bringing the experience of my youth to it.
“I would like, of course, to bring something new or different – something unique – to this. I hope I did that. I also wanted to compose and arrange music that I really love , because I’m very picky about how I want the strings to sound.
The album had been in incubation for some time before becoming a reality.
“I had floated the idea of doing a ‘double quartet’ album a few years ago and it languished,” recalls Sung, a Texas native and longtime New York resident.
“Then the pandemic arrived. I thought, “I need to put this on the back burner even more.” All my work was gone. I wondered if I could even pay my rent.
Her new album came about when Sung received grants from the NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music & Theater and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music.
“A deadline really gets you going!” she said laughing. “I’ve never made a record so fast. We recorded the album in three days last April, mixed it in May, mastered it in June and released it in September. I was flying by the seat of my pants.
Born in Houston, Sung is the daughter of Chinese parents who are dual immigrants, having moved first to Taiwan from mainland China and then to Texas. She is acutely aware of the challenges of cultural assimilation – of wanting to fit in and not stand out or appear ‘outsider’.
Like other Asian Americans, Sung has experienced the uncomfortable phenomenon of being seen as a “banana”, which means – as she puts it – “yellow on the outside and white on the inside”.
“I wanted to being American,” she said. “And if I really unpacked what that meant, it was White, wasn’t it? I didn’t feel connected to being Chinese and was a little ashamed, but I couldn’t hide it. So there was definitely this tension and this conflict of not fitting in anywhere.
“If I didn’t say a word, people assumed I didn’t speak English.”
The turning point for Sung came nearly a decade ago when she toured China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan with New York-based big band Mingus Dynasty. It included a performance at the Taiwan International Music Festival.
The festival program misrepresented her as Korean, presumably because “Sung” is a common Korean name.
“When they found out that I was Chinese and that both my parents grew up in Taipei, a lot of Taiwanese musicians were like, ‘Oh my god!’ They were so excited, like, ‘You’re one of us!’ And I felt this embrace that I absolutely did not expect.
“I also appreciated my parents more and the way they raised me the way they did (in Texas). Because they were in such a different place, and they sacrificed so much so that I could play. music.
Helen Sung Quartet+, with Jenny Scheinman, John Ellis, David Wong and Terreon Gully
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Or: Dizzy’s at Arias Hall (behind the Musicians’ Association), 1717 Morena Blvd., Bay Park
Call: (858) 270-7467
In line: dizzysjazz.com