Helen Sung - Sung With Words

Label: Stricker Street Records, 2018

Personnel - Helen Sung: piano; John Ellis: tenor and soprano sax, bass clarinet; Ingrid Jensen: trumpet; Reuben Rogers: bass; Kendrick Scott: drums; Samuel Torres: percussion + guests Jean Baylor, Carolyn Leonhart, Christie Dashiel, Charenee Wade: vocals


Helen Sung keeps up the glowing sophistication in her way of playing that withstands any sort of a synthetic approach to music. She puts this skill into use in her new recording, Sung With Words, the first containing all original compositions. Every single piece was inspired by the words of Californian poet Dana Gioia.

Sung puts together a central sextet with saxophonist/clarinetist John Ellis, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Kendrick Scott, and percussionist Samuel Torres. The vocal tracks, in which every syllable is served with lyric refinement after Gioia’s spoken-word intros, are ‘entrusted’ to whether one or two accomplished guest singers such as Jean Baylor, Carolyn Leonhart, Christie Dashiel, and Charenee Wade.

Scott’s drumming announces “Convergence” even when Gioia is still reciting the introductory poem. This straight-ahead instrumental is infectiously swinging, sparkled by the bopish idioms of Ellis and Jensen, and having a rhythmically daring Sung synchronizing single-note melodies with bouncy chordal movements. Splitting up solos are interludes that propagate ephemeral yet surprising Afro-Latin winds.

Other instrumentals that stand out are “Into The Unknown”, a post-bop exaltation, first enlivened by Ellis’ fluent digressions on tenor and then cooled down by Sung’s delicate pianism before Scott bursts in a drum solo over an odd-metered vamp; and “In The Shadowland”, which, spreading a gentle bossa nova scent in the air, burns with positive statements by Ellis (now on soprano) and Rogers. The bassist is also active on the seductive “The Stars on Second Avenue”, the first of two vocal songs sincerely expressed by Ms. Baylor's voice.

Dashiell and Leonhart team up on “Hot Summer Night” and “Too Bad”. The former composition is an R&B-tinged feast marked by a warm rhythm and great horn fills, also having saxophone, trumpet, and piano exchanging lines; whereas the latter, flowing with a three time feel, is enhanced by Jensen’s grooving solo, beautifully articulated with on-spot timbral variations. Sung follows her tenderly. Dashell also collaborates with Wade on “Mean What You Say”, a soul-jazz manifesto recalling the work of Horace Silver.

Based on a sad story of injustice, “Lament For Kalief Browder” kicks off in obscurantism, featuring Leonhart, who vocalizes ethereally with stable piano support. A wistful bass clarinet ostinato fortifies the foundation, yet the intensity of the music varies according to the shifting passages. There’s an opportunity here for Kendrick and Torres shine in a percussive coalition.

The rhythms and textures devised by Sung, an intelligent composer, somehow restore and revitalize Gioia’s poems in an ingenious combination of jazz and poetry. This work feels like a necessary, certainly confident step in the pianist’s career.

Grade  A

Grade A

Favorite Tracks:

02 - Convergence ► 05 - Hot Summer Night ► 11 - Into The Unknown