For a relatively recent convert to improvised music, New York–based pianist Helen Sung has a notable zeal for paying tribute to the jazz giants who informed her art.
At this year’s edition of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival (streamed on June 26), she’ll lead an online trio date with veteran bassist Lonnie Plaxico and Steps Ahead drummer Steve Smith. Called “Bouncin’ with Bud”, the concert will celebrate the music of pianist and composer Bud Powell, a key figure in the postwar movement known as bebop, associated with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
“People tend to associate this music with Thelonious Monk,” Sung says on the line from her home in Queens. “They actually called him the High Priest of Bebop. But Bud Powell is closer to the Charlie Parker side of things, with his radical reharmonization of standard tunes. Bud had a unique background in stride piano, with more bass notes, a lot of strength and accuracy, and a pure kind of textured sound."
Sung herself favours a light touch, delivering an endless cascade of ideas for an effortless effect that’s rhapsodic but also authoritative and playfully darting. Born in Texas to Chinese immigrants who had zero 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 had what she describes as “a lightning-bolt moment”.
She transferred to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, part of the New England Conservatory of Music. (It recently changed its name to the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz.) She later got to tour Asia with Miles Davis veterans Hancock, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter, and while in school she learned from the last row of jazz giants still standing in the early 2000s, such as Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, and Barry Harris—all but Harris (now 91) gone but never forgotten.
“I think of them as the mighty T-Rexes,” she declares with a laugh, “ruling their world. But then the environment changed, and we’re still adjusting. More than technical information, they shared their lives with us. I mean, they literally risked everything to play in the Jim Crow South. These jazz masters practised tough love and really cared about us and the continuation of the music.”
While starting to record as leader and sidewoman, Sung started teaching at the Berklee College of Music and other prestigious schools. She’s still trying to balance her street knowledge with academia, but the pandemic took away much of the conflict when schools shut down last year.
“It was very disorienting. But I ended up finally having the time to consider what I really want to do.”
She’s also manifesting deeper explorations she undertook in 2019 as artist-in-residence at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, dedicated to studies of the human brain. Like Monk, Powell had mental issues that both fed into and sometimes thwarted his career. (Powell’s problems might have come partly from a beating by police, and the pioneering pianist died at age 41, in 1966.)
Sung is too modest to mention that she was just named a Guggenheim Fellow for 2021, which means she’ll have more resources available for her hands-on journey through the jazz encyclopedia.
“I still have a long way to go,” she admits. “But I feel like I’ve already faced the hardest part just by getting here. I know that playing jazz has made me the best version of who I am.”