Pianist and composer Helen Sung is establishing herself firmly in jazz. Sung's sixth album, Anthem For A New Day, showcases some of her original compositions and other interpretations of songs by great musicians, including jazz icons Thelonious Monk and Chick Corea. It is her first recording on a major music label.
After training as a classical pianist, the Houston, Texas native said it was a complete paradigm shift for her to leave classical music to focus on jazz, swing, and bebop.
"I always tell people my musical emancipation began with jazz," said Sung, who began studying music at age nine. “I knew I didn’t want to be someone who could kind of, you know, fake it because I had the technique. I really wanted to be an authentic jazz player with something genuine to say.”
Sung was bitten by the jazz bug when one of her college mates invited her to a Harry Connick Jr. concert. “It was in the middle of that concert … I remember just wanting to jump out of my skin because, you know, this guy is playing the piano in a way as if attacking the piano, playing in a way I was taught not to do,” she recalled.
The concert exposed Sung to a new world she knew nothing about. “The rules were totally different and the music is so alive. It just grabbed me,” she explained.
Afterwards, Sung says she had to find out whatever she could about jazz. She took a beginning jazz piano class in college, and continued her studies at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. In fact, she is a graduate of the school's inaugural class. “I was so fortunate to get accepted, the first class ever I started out at the New England Conservatory Institute in Boston. It kind of sealed the deal for me.” she said.
Sung has not given up totally on classical music. Her background shows in her rendition of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) on the new album, Anthem For A New Day.
Among guest musicians who contributed to the new album are violinist Regina Carter and Cuban-born clarinetist & saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera.
Sung says her next project could be an album about poetry-inspired jazz.
In 2007, she participated in the taping of the American public television series “In Performance at The White House” where she met renowned poet Dana Gioia. He encouraged her to read poetry. "He sent me some of his work, so I started reading (poetry) again. And then I discovered if I try to set words to music, it would actually help me with understanding the poem,” said Sung. “That started me on an adventure, and I would love to record this project next. I’ve kind of accumulated eight to ten songs of music written and inspired by poet Dana Gioia.”