Q&A with emerging pianist HELEN SUNG

For the launch of our annual Debut Series, which presents artists new to the Cleveland community, Tri-C JazzFest included the exceptional young pianist Helen Sung.  On a lovely Sunday afternoon in the exquisite chamber-hall like confines of the new performing arts auditorium at East Cleveland Public Library, Helen Sung and her trio totally enthralled a packed house of folks who threatened to jump out of their seats at every nuance the pianist delivered.  It was a major love-in and Helen’s CDs quickly sold out after the performance by folks eager to scoop up some of her recorded skills; her performance was that magnetic!


I first became acquainted with Helen Sung at one of the Monk Institute piano competitions at the Kennedy Center.  That afternoon, though she didn’t win the competition, there was something about her artistry, a certain sparkle that came across in her presentation and her general carriage at the keyboard, coupled with her obvious piano facility that marked her as someone to watch.  When you see Helen Sung in performance you are immediately taken by the sheer joy of her artistry.  She decidedly is not some brooding, introspective pianist intent on navel gazing.  There is an energy, warmth and a palpable humor in her playing that is quite infectious.  Helen’s latest recording Sungbird  (after Albeniz) is on the Sunnyside label.


Willard Jenkins: What originally compelled you to want to learn and play jazz music?

Helen Sung: Probably two things: 1) the incredible feeling of swing, and 2) the desire to learn how to improvise… to be able to do more than just the written note — this thrilled and terrified me at the same time!


How and where did that quest begin?

It began at the end of my undergraduate studies in classical piano at the University of Texas at Austin.  A friend dragged me to a Harry Connick Jr. concert (I didn’t know who he was at that point), and a couple of solo [piano] pieces he played during the concert floored me.  I didn’t know the piano could be played like that!  Along with some fellow classical majors, I enrolled in an "Intro to Jazz" class (taught by UT’s excellent jazz piano professor Jeff Hellmer) and things kind of took off from there.  I listened to everything I could get my hands on and read books on the history and masters of jazz music.  I didn’t know much so my listening was unorganized but fun — from Bill Evans to Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman to Keith Jarrett to Sun Ra.


How do you explain the fact that Houston now has not one but three very vital young pianists (in addition to yourself there’s Jason Moran and Robert Glasper)?

Well I’m totally honored that you included me in this group because I see myself more as a party crasher (she smiles).  Better late than never I suppose!  Anyway, I attribute this to the excellent performing arts high school in Houston — HSPVA — and its former jazz director Dr. Robert Morgan.  Although I wasn’t a part of his class, he ran what must have been an amazing jazz program because so many great musicians on the scene today come from PVA, folks like drummers Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Mark Simmons, Kendrick Scott, another great pianist Eddy Hobizal, the list goes on and on.  People also say there must be something in the water…


What did growing up in Houston contribute to your eventual pursuit of jazz and the various flavors and approaches you bring to your music?

I was totally immersed in the classical thing when I lived in Houston.  I also played the violin so I was in youth symphony (and the HSPVA orchestra too, in fact).  So the colors, textures, and forms of classical music play a big part in what I hear.  Houston is also an urban city so the feeling & attitudes must be in there somewhere!  My years in Austin were also important, it being a center for so many different types of music — classical, jazz, rock, folk, alternative, bluegrass, Dixieland, etc.


Your latest recording "Sungbird" brings elements of both your jazz and your European art music experiences together.  Talk about why you decided to explore this kinship and are these two musics really so far apart as some think?

This was my first recorded attempt to bring jazz and western European art music together in a way that I hope is authentic and does justice to both styles.  I remember hearing classical treatments of jazz (and vice versa) and feeling that one side always got the short end of the stick.  In the end, I think music is about sound and style, although specific concepts & aesthetics might differ.  I remember being blown away when I found out classical cats back in the day all improvised — and in the style they wrote!  Can you imagine J.S. Bach improvising a Prelude & Fugue, Mozart or Beethoven improvising a sonata, Chopin improvising a ballade?  Amazing!  I remember playing piano concertos, which always have a cadenza in the 1st movement where the soloist is supposed to improvise (the "big soloist" moment).  But I always played written out cadenzas.  I remember feeling funny about that, and am very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to learn how to improvise.


Have you mapped out any plans for your next recording?

Yes!  My next recording will probably be a live recording, a mix of old and new music (sneak preview).  For my next studio project I would love to record my "electric" music.  I’m a big fan of fusion (Weather Report, Headhunters, Return to Forever, etc.) and want to record the music I’ve written that is inspired by those groups.


What’s happening with, and what are your aspirations for your performing career?

Someone said to me once, "slow & steady."  I appreciate and agree with that, but I’m also ready for that "big something" to happen!  I’m grateful to have more and more bandleader situations and look forward to what 2008 will bring.  One upcoming highlight is a performance at the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival [Helen won the 2007 Mary Lou Williams Piano Competition at the Kennedy Center].  I’m also wrestling with the whole management/agent thing.  This music business is no joke!


Obviously it takes more than pure talent to be successful in music.  What skills do you recommend that young aspiring musicians MUST bring to the table if they are to have a shot at success?

Above all I would say persistence and patience.  And community.  This is a tough field and can be discouraging at times.  I’m a big fan of those who have longevity and continuing relevance in jazz music, and I aspire to the same.


You’re a highly communicative artist — both in terms of how you connect with your audiences, and in terms of how you are building and communicating with your audience (or "fan") base.  Talk about the importance of those elements in building a successful career.

I believe the artist is the ambassador for their music to the listening audience.  I never thought I’d be one to speak on the mike and all that, but I’ve had to, and have grown to appreciate it as a learned skill and important way to connect with the audience… to get to know them and let them get to know me.  People respond to music, and when there is a good artist-audience connection, the response is even better.  This takes time, and is a building process.


If you were afforded ample resources for a dream project, what would that be?

A large ensemble (rhythm, horns, percussion, voice) with Wayne Shorter as the guest star!  To tour and perorm a jazz song cycle and also an instrumental suite…


You can catch up to Helen Sung at: www.helensung.com.  Don’t sleep!

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