With the release of her latest album, Anthem for a New Day, jazz pianist/composer Helen Sung feels like she’s come into her own as an artist. She’ll be playing a show including selections from the album next Thursday, June 26, at The Hamilton as part of the DC Jazz Festival.
Despite the declarative name of her new work, she’s still cautious about making such a definitive statement about her music. An artist’s music evolves, she says, and learning continues. But this album marks a cohesion of style for the artist, a fusion of her early and extensive training as a classical pianist with the jazz music that captured her musical attention later in life and triggered an immediate change of direction for Sung.
Sung wasn’t exposed to jazz music early on in her life. Sung describes herself as a first-generation American, the child of Chinese immigrants, and the first musician in her family. If she heard jazz growing up, she imagines it would have been on a PBS show. Even as a student at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she never interacted with its jazz students musically because she was so engrossed in her classical piano studies. But as a classical piano performance student wrapping up her undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin, a concert outing became a life-changing experience.
At the invitation of a friend, Sung saw Harry Connick Jr. perform live. Some solo jazz pieces the musician played on piano in the middle of the show had a profound impact on Sung.
“I remember thinking, like, ‘Hey, how come no one ever told me about this,’” Sung said with a laugh. “There was such a vividness, a life, this irresistible energy. I was totally knocked off my chair.”
She left the show eager to learn more about jazz music. She devoured jazz recordings and books on the genre, plotting her own course of jazz discovery. She enrolled in a beginning jazz class at her school, both thrilled and terrified by the prospect. She’d never improvised before; she’d never had to. In her classical piano training, her task was to painstakingly interpret the composer’s meaning. In fact she likened the art of improvisation to a magic trick in how it was so curious and so inaccessible to her. But jazz and improv go hand in hand. It’s like composing on the spot, she says, like learning a language. She took private lessons with a jazz piano professor – after begging him for the instruction.
She stayed on at the University of Texas and earned a master’s degree in classical piano performance, and was later accepted into the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music. She considers it a blessing for the opportunity it provided her to immerse herself in the study of jazz music. There, she learned directly from the jazz masters she’d heard on recordings. She went on to release five albums as she continued her exploration of jazz music. But the sixth, Anthem for a New Day, she says, marks her new beginning. She’s found confidence in the jazz genre, and she’s infused it with her classical training to make something uniquely her own – just as she learned to do from the jazz greats.
“My music is rooted in the tradition, but one thing the masters always told us is that you always want to move the music forward in your own way,” Sung said. “So that’s what I’m trying to do.”
• For more information about Helen Sung, visit helensung.com.