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Helen Sung On JazzSet

By Becca Pulliam | WBGO
Friday, June 20, 2014

This episode of JazzSet was recorded at the 18th edition of the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Dee Dee Bridgewater is the emcee, while WBGO's Rhonda Hamilton serves as our co-host.

At the piano, Helen Sung hails from Houston, Texas, and she's currently based in New York City. She's been making waves as an expressive performer and composer with five albums to her credit. Sung went to college in Austin, where hearing a Tommy Flanagan solo drew her from classical piano to jazz. To this day, she recommends that young people study classical music, even if jazz is their goal.

Sung started out with dreams of becoming a concert pianist — "and I am so grateful this music made room for me," she says from the stage after playing a song she wrote for Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale, brewed at North Coast in California. Sung is a graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute graduate program, and a former winner of the Mary Lou Williams Piano Competition at the Kennedy Center.

A few years ago, Sung performed with the Mingus Big Band for thousands of people in Taiwan, where her parents grew up. It was a huge night for her: Helen Sung's NuGenerations project was named a Rhythm Road Jazz Ambassador, touring Africa for the U.S. State Department.

Talent, dedication, a skill at adapting classical dances to jazz formats, great solos, her ability to listen and lock in with her rhythm sections and to lead her band with her smiles — these are some of Sung's musical and personal qualities that reward further exploration.

Anthem for a New Day comes out in January on Concord. Her previous albums are on Sunnyside.

Trumpeter Brandon Lee also comes from "H-Town" (see last song title). Saxophonist Seamus Blake grew up in Vancouver and won the 2002 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition. Bassist Ben Wolfe comes from Baltimore and Portland, Ore., while drummer Donald Edwards is from Louisiana and New Orleans.

Set List

  • "It Don't Mean A Thing" (Ellington, arr. Sung)
  • "Brother Thelonious" (Sung)
  • "Armando's Rumba" (Corea, arr. Sung)
  • "Shall We Tango" (from the Albeniz Tango, arr. Sung)
  • "Anthem for a New Day" (Sung)
  • "Never Let Me Go" (Evans & Livingston, arr. Sung)
  • "H-Town" (Sung)
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