fri 19/07/2024

Album: Helen Sung – Quartet+ | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Helen Sung – Quartet+

Album: Helen Sung – Quartet+

A celebration of the great women jazz composer/pianists

Dazzling. That was the first adjective with which the illustrious Marian McPartland described Helen Sung’s piano playing, when she had the remarkable Houston-born pianist as her guest for an episode of the NPR radio show Piano Jazz in 2006.

On Quartet+ (Sunnyside), Sung is celebrating “landmark women in jazz”, including McPartland (a new arrangement of “Kaleidoscope”, the theme from the radio show, worked in with a string quartet version of “Melancholy Mood”), and also Mary Lou Williams, Geri Allen, Carla Bley, and Toshiko Akiyoshi. “True pioneers and giants all,” as Sung describes them. 

Jazz is a collaborative art, Sung is by nature respectful, even deferent (she initially addressed her radio host in 2006 as “Mrs. McPartland), and on Quartet+ she unfailingly leaves space to provide an ideal setting for her fellow band-members, and allows them to shine. Thus in the opener, a wonderfully upbeat, detailed and crisp interpretation of Geri Allen’s “Feed the Fire”, it is bassist David Wong and drummer Kendrick Scott who are placed in the foreground, and saxophonist/flautist John Ellis who is given the dominant melodic voice.

And yet, again and again, it is Sung’s astonishing musicianship which shines through, whether as soloist, accompanist or as the composer and guiding spirit behind the project. Because she has a speed of thought, a keyboard facility and a boundless imagination to “elevate the music and move it forward”phrases she likes to use – and to do so at will, and at any moment. There are astonishingly deft flights of fancy in her soloing, for example on “Time Loops”. And wonderful delicacy too: for once, at the very end of “Mary’s Waltz” she allows herself to have the last quiet, reflective word on Mary Lou Williams' classic. It’s the perfect take in every way.

Hearing the finesse and the class of Sung’s playing in contexts like that serves as a reminder that she really does need to be heard in the live context, whether leading her own groups, appearing as a regular in the Mingus Big Band, or in one-off contexts  such as one gig I will remember as one of the best I have ever been to in my life  when she appeared as a member of Christine Jensen’s carte blanche invitation quartet at the 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival.

Sung takes on a wide range of projects: she is a current Guggenheim Fellow, which will result in new compositions for jazz orchestra. She is producing “interdisciplinary events with her quartet and a poet, a DJ and an installation artist”. The Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice has given her a 'Score Compilation Grant'. She is also involved in collaborations with Columbia University's Mind Brain Behavior Institute. Intellectual rigour, organisational flair? You betcha.

On Quartet + another side of that huge range is on offer: Sung in her in the role of composer/ arranger. In her writing here she has combined a classical string quartet with a jazz quartet. Sung knew from the very first time she heard them that she wanted to work with the Harlem String Quartet  ("I'm quite picky when it comes to string playing", she says), and this is the first recorded fruit of that collaboration. Sung has found some real fluency in her writing for string quartet, and the Harlem String Quartet excel in the way they adapt to the many and varied roles they are given. “Coquette” is based on a tune by Clara Schumann, but the writing and playing have the weightlessness and ease of a Mendelssohnian Scherzo. Clara Bley’s “Wrong Key Donkey” has a clever quote from the last movement of Mozart’s Quartet the ‘right’ key of F Major. And “Time Loops” takes them more into the world of John Adams. There is a kaleidoscope of different possibilities here, and that gives the album a certain freshness, and happy accidents  - which are anything but accidents of course - all the way through. 

Quartet+ is to say the very least a complex project, but it is one in which Helen Sung…as ever…dazzles.


Pianist Helen Sung has astonishing speed of thought and keyboard facility, and a boundless imagination


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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