Like many of New York’s top jazz pianists today (including Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, and James Francies), Helen Sung grew up in Houston, Texas and attended the Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSVPA). However, Sung’s journey to playing jazz in New York is quite a bit different than those other alums’. Sung played exclusively classical piano through high school and most of college, before a Harry Connick, Jr. concert changed her musical direction. Sung would go on to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute at New England Conservatory and later settled in New York in 1999.
Since then, Sung has released six albums as a leader on Fresh Sound, Sunnyside, Steeplechase, and Concord, and has kept up a busy schedule of sidewoman work with the likes of Clark Terry, Steve Turre, Regina Carter, and Terri Lynne Carrington. Sung’s latest project is a collaboration with the poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia. Supported by a “New Jazz Works” grant from Chamber Music American and the Doris Duke Foundation, Sung and her group will premiere this work at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, December 17th. We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Sung by phone this week to discuss the origins and challenges of her exciting and expansive project.
The Jazz Gallery: What’s keeping you busy these days?
Helen Sung: I was on the road for two weeks, and I’m just back home after playing a gig last night. It was a great gig with the saxophonist Scott Robinson and bassist Rufus Reid at The Kitano. And then, this Chamber Music of America project, trying to finish everything. There’s so much more to it than the music. The peripheral stuff. We’ve been working with Revive Music, making videos and other things. There’s so much to do, and I’m always learning. Sometimes I joke that this is my “continuing education.”
TJG: So this work you’re bringing to the gallery is called Sung With Words. Could you tell me a little about the project?
HS: It’s something I’ve been tinkering with in the back of my mind for a while, ever since I met the poet, my collaborative partner, Dana Gioia. He was the former chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts under George W. Bush. I was playing a performance at the White House, which they were taping live for PBS. They had a state dinner right before, and I happened to be seated next to him. We started talking, and he was interested that I liked to read, especially science fiction. We talked about my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury and Orson Scott Card. So we became friends, and he would send me his works.
TJG: How did the collaboration begin?
HS: I remember telling him that I felt a little intimidated by poetry because I could never be sure of the meaning. I felt like I was the only person in the room who “didn’t get it.” I feel like Gioia has the same gift for poetry that Wynton Marsalis has for jazz. He makes it really accessible and interesting for the layperson. He told me not to worry about literal meaning, or any other kind of meaning. Poetry is musical, and should be read out loud, to get a sense of the rhythm and sounds of the words, and then the meaning will come. This inspired me to read poetry a little more. I began to wonder, what if I set certain lines of poetry to music? That helped illuminate the poem for me, and started an interest in writing songs with words.
I’d been fascinated by the relationship that singers have with the audience, because they have words and they use their voice. Whereas, I’m an instrumentalist and am dealing exclusively with sound. So, I had an envy for singers, thinking “Gosh, that must be really cool to actually tell the audience a story.” That all came together through the Chamber Music of America grant, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. They have a wonderful grant program called “New Jazz Works,” and Dana and I had been talking about writing songs together. So I asked Dana, and we decided to write a jazz song-cycle together. I was lucky enough to receive the grant in 2014, and Sung with Words was officially formed.
It’s been a cool experience to have a hand in crafting the words. Sometimes it was simply taking a phrase, maybe from a conversation with a friend, and using it as a seed and setting it to music, or sending a melody or phrase along to Dana.
TJG: Could you give us an example of some of those “seed” lines?
HS: Sure. For example, he wrote a poem called ‘Too Bad.” Dana consciously shortened the lines of his poem, inspired by a song I had written. The poem has just a couple of words per line. Poems can be wordy, but when you consider singing or melody, I really didn’t want these songs to sound like vocalises. I wanted to write songs that were hummable and singable, and fun to listen to. Another example; A friend and I were having a conversation, and one of us said “You just need to say what you mean, and mean what you say.” So, Dana wrote a poem called “Mean What You Say.”
TJG: You mentioned that when you first met Dana, he re-inspired you to read more poetry. What poets did you reach for during that time?
HS: I read his poems, of course. I remember reading Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Edith Wharton, Robert Friend, Billy Collins. I’m sure there were more. Stephen Dunn is another one.
TJG: And in terms of the melodics and sonics of these poems, who really resonated with you as you began collaborating with Dana?
HS: I remember the first time I heard Dana read one of his poems live, I had never seen a poet read their own work out loud before. Most of the poets I was reading were either no longer alive, or I didn’t know them personally. So I was blown away by the experience. It’s theatrical, musical, such a performance. That was my main inspiration. Hearing him read my own work was so different then reading it off the page.
TJG: And so then the music began to take shape around these poems?
HS: Yes. You know, the process has been painstaking, as I’ve wanted each song to be an honest distillation of what the words and emotions were saying and evoking. We’ve all heard so much music, and it’s a journey to find out what’s really from us, versus what is simply derivative. In my own writing, I remember composer and accordionist Gil Goldstein talked about those feeds that come to us, for us, and if we don’t pay attention to them they leave, and blend into the other stuff that we always hear around us. So it’s hard. Outside of composing my own music, I have to simultaneously be learning other people’s music for all these other projects. So it’s been a slow process of really building something that’s honest and has integrity, and comes directly from myself. Part of that is hearing how Dana hears his own poetry, so I can have that aspect of the collaboration in my ear and in my consciousness. So yes, it’s been a great learning experience also just writing songs, being conscious of the singer and what would work vocally, versus what a saxophone or piano might do.
TJG: So you’re talking here about identity, about self-realization, and self-declaration. I was watching an interview with you in which you spoke about your 6th album, Anthem for a New Day, which you also described as a self-declaration in terms of your merging with classical and jazz. Do you draw any parallels between the experiences of Anthem and Sung with Words?
HS: I don’t know that these are self-declarative, necessarily. For me, this is just my first serious venture or foray into writing songs with words. As in all my writing, I want to write from myself, rather than sounding or being derivative. Sometimes it just comes easily. I wish I could just bottle up that inspiration. So it’s been like a treasure hunt. This is something new for me, and a great learning experience regarding vocal technique, facility, and practice. I’m used to writing for instrumentalists. It’s not that you can’t ask vocalists to do that, but I think my aim was to write more singable, accessible, beautiful songs.
TJG: To take it back even further, you began as a classical pianist, yes?
TJG: Did you have much, or any, familiarity with jazz as you were completing your classical education?
HS: No, not at all, which is such a shame, because I went to a high school where so many great jazz cats are from in Houston. The only jazz I heard was probably in Charlie Brown or on Sesame Street, two of the shows I was allowed to watch when I was a kid [laughs]. I was raised in a strict Chinese household, and studied with a very controlling Russian classical teacher. I was the dutiful Asian student: My teacher’s view was that there is no music worth listening to except for classical music. And so it wasn’t until the end of my undergraduate degree at UT Austin that I was exposed to jazz. I was feeling ambivalent, about this path I had been on with a lot of determination and dedication.
So a friend of mine invited me to a Harry Connick Jr. concert. I didn’t know who he was. I was your typical classical student; always in the practice room. I remember, he was very entertaining with the big band. But in the middle of the concert he sat down and did a couple of solo piano pieces in the style of Professor Longhair from New Orleans, stride piano sort of thing. The life in that music and the energy with which he played it, I felt like I was struck by lightning. I remember thinking “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?!” I wanted to jump out of myself. So some of us enrolled in a beginning jazz piano class. After it was done, my friends went back to their classical studies, but I felt that I had to find out more about the music. I was reading all the books I could find, was listening to whatever recordings I could find in the music library. I begged the jazz piano professor there for lessons, and step by step, the more I learned about jazz, the more I fell in love with it. What a noble art form, the history of it. It’s such a profound music and is one of the most generous art forms that I know of.
I didn’t want to do it half-way. I wanted to swing, to understand the history and tradition. I applied for the Monk Institute program and was accepted, and that sealed the deal for me, much to the chagrin and dismay of my classical teacher!
TJG: Well of course, you wouldn’t be the jazz musician that you are now if it weren’t for your classical teachers.
HS: Of course. And it saved me a lot of time too, I didn’t have to worry about my technique that much. I felt like I was thrown into the deep end of the jazz pool, trying to survive and not drown. But now, I feel like I can breathe and look around a bit, and take some of that classical part of myself down from the shelf again. It’s been an adventure. Again, the Monk Institute, the experience of studying with the masters, the music is priceless. I know I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am now if it weren’t for that experience.
TJG: And what was it in that experience that helped you craft your artistic voice?
HS: At that point, I think jazz education was beginning to become formalized in many colleges and universities. A unique thing about the Monk Institute program is that their passion is to replicate, in a school setting, the ways in which jazz was taught more socially, on the streets and bandstands, from master to apprentice. So, we only had to take one academic class over the course of a two-year program. The rest of the time, they’d bring in the masters to spend time with the seven of us, one-on-one. They’d work with us a week or two weeks at a time. We would get to know them. The whole community, the whole social aspect, is such a part of the music. Listening to their stories and being around them, these people who I’d been listening to on CDs for years, and then suddenly they were in front of me?! One thing I love about that venerable generation is that they love the music and love us, and they told us the truth. Which can hurt. You know, when someone tells you you need to really work on something, that you don’t have it together. But it takes love and compassion to tell someone the truth. It was such a privilege and blessing; Clark Terry was our first teacher, Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean, one after another. It was amazing.
TJG: What a ride! Well, is there anything else you’d like to add about your show on December 17th?
HS: Sure – These musicians, especially the instrumentalists, are people I love and have worked with a lot since I moved to New York in ’99. They’re all amazing artists, many of them bandleaders in their own right. I feel really fortunate to have them come together for this. The vocalists; I’ve known Carolyn Leonhart for a long time, and she’s such a versatile vocalist, with such depth and range. Carmen Lundy is an amazing artist too, she writes and paints and her voice is so compelling. So, I’m really excited to have everybody involved. It’s finally happening!
TJG: We’re all so excited as well. Thanks for talking with us, Helen.
HS: Thank you!
Helen Sung presents her project Sung With Words, featuring settings Dana Gioia‘s poetry, at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, December 17th, 2015. Ms. Sung, piano, will be joined by vocalists Carolyn Leonhart and Carmen Lundy, saxophonist John Ellis, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Donald Edwards, and percussionist Samuel Torres. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
Sung With Words by Helen Sung and the Helen Sung Group has been made possible with support from Chamber Music America’s 2014 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.