For a jazz pianist, New York-based Helen Sung certainly fits into the “deserves to be better known” category. For those who do know and appreciate her art, Sung’s club gigs are adventurous, disarming, and always have an unexpected surprise or two. It was at one of these small club dates where I caught her during a late set in the summer of 2013 with much of the same band that accompany her on Anthem For A New Day, her glossy and rewarding debut record for Concord Jazz.
A classically trained musician who found self-expression more fully realized playing and composing jazz, Sung is a nimble, quick-witted keyboardist partly influenced by pianist Tommy Flanagan, but the modern compositions she’s recorded here along with her wry twist on jazz covers like Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing” and the percussive bounce on Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba,” put her squarely in her own spotlight.
Anthem is outfitted with state-of-the-art production values and a band to match—the rhythm section includes two of New York’s finest—bassist Rueben Rogers and drummer Obed Calvaire—with front line duties deftly handled by tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. On either piano or recording on Fender Rhodes for the first time as she does here, Sung exercises equal parts soulfulness and grace even as her sparkling originals teem with colorful solos. The mischievous turns on “Brother Thelonious,” the playfully elastic tempo of the title tune or a smoky, mysterious track called “Hidden’ complete with a star turn by violinist Regina Carter, throws open the window on Sung’s talent and thoughtful arrangements.
But there’s a deeper satisfaction in hearing the unshakeable groove on her rendition of Monk’s “Epistrophy” that gives Sung and her band, especially the soaring voice of saxophonist Blake, maximum space to re-imagine the beauty of Monk’s music.
Anthem is an eclectic and solid listening experience; and at the least, should give Sung a place at the table as one of contemporary jazz’s great pianists.
This article is from the February 2014 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.