Pianist Helen Sung celebrates ‘the other’ high priest of the Bebop of jazz music
For a relatively recent convert to improvised music, New York pianist Helen Sung has a notable zeal for paying homage to the jazz giants who have shaped her art.
At this year’s edition of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival (airing June 26), she will lead an online trio with veteran bassist Lonnie Plaxico and Steps Ahead drummer Steve Smith. Dubbed ‘Bouncin’ with Bud ‘, the concert will celebrate the music of pianist and composer Bud Powell, a key figure in the post-war movement known as bebop, associated with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
âPeople tend to associate this music with Thelonious Monk,â Sung says over the phone from his home in Queens. âIn fact, they called him the high priest of Bebop. But Bud Powell is closer to the Charlie Parker side of things, with his radical re-harmonization of standard tunes. Bud had a unique experience in the stride piano, with more bass notes, lots of strength and precision, and a pure, textured sound. “
Sung herself favors a light touch, delivering an endless cascade of ideas for an effortless effect that’s rhapsodic but also bossy and playful. Born in Texas to Chinese immigrants who had no interest in jazz or popular music, she grew up studying classical piano and violin at a performing arts high school in Houston. She only encountered the jazz tradition at the University of Texas at Austin, where she experienced what she describes as “a blast moment.”
She transferred to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, which is part of the New England Conservatory of Music. (He recently changed his name to Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz.) She then toured Asia with veterans Miles Davis Hancock, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter, and while studying she learned from the back row of giants of jazz still standing. in the early 2000s, like Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath and Barry Harris, all but Harris (now 91) gone but never forgotten.
âI think of them as the mighty T-Rex,â she laughs, âruling their world. But then the environment changed, and we continue to adapt. More than technical information, they shared their life with us. I mean, they literally risked everything to play in the Jim Crow South. These jazz masters practiced a hard love and really cared about us and the continuity of the music. “
While beginning to record as a leader and sidewoman, Sung began teaching at Berklee College of Music and other prestigious schools. She still tries to balance her knowledge of the streets with academia, but the pandemic swept away much of the conflict when schools closed last year.
âIt was very disorienting. But I ended up having time to think about what I really want to do.
She is also manifesting more in-depth explorations that she undertook in 2019 as Artist in Residence at the Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University, dedicated to human brain studies. Like Monk, Powell had mental issues that fueled and at times thwarted his career. (Powell’s problems may have stemmed in part from a beating by the police, and the pioneering pianist died at age 41, in 1966.)
Sung is too modest to mention that she has just been named a Guggenheim Fellow for 2021, which means she will have more resources available for her practical journey through the encyclopedia of jazz.
âI still have a long way to go,â she admits. âBut I feel like I have already faced the most difficult part just coming here. I know playing jazz has made me the best version of who I am.