INTERVIEW: Helen Sung (Watermill Jazz, Nov 12th - tickets available / EFG LJF Nov 15th - sold out)

Helen Sung. Photo credit: © Kat Villacorta

In this interview, US pianist Helen Sung, who was last in the UK as pianist with the Mingus Big Band talks about her first musical experiences and her conversion to jazz, ahead of her upcoming visit to the UK. Interview with Kathryn Shackleton.

LondonJazz News:  What were your first experiences playing and listening to music?

Helen Sung : I remember having a small red plastic keyboard (with no more than 12-14 keys, each a different color!) when I was around 3 years old. I don’t know if it was meant to be mine alone, but it became mine:  I carried it under my arm as I walked around. Although I don’t remember doing this, my mom says she heard me play melodies on this keyboard that I heard off the radio and TV, so when some family friends were moving back to Taiwan and needed to get rid of their upright piano, my parents bought it from them. I remember the day it was delivered - I was woken from an afternoon nap on a hot humid day in Houston, where I was born. I remember my first lessons from age 5, practising as my Mom or Grandma sat with me. I also remember starting the violin around the same time. As we stood in the class scratching out Suzuki exercises, I remember an odd feeling of familiarity and comfort. Strange to think such a thing at that age!

I am not from a musical family. My parents wanted me to be a doctor or choose another “normal” profession, so it hasn’t been the easiest road. I’m the oldest of four children and turned out to be the black sheep, which can be a difficult experience. I’m not sure how these things show up in my playing, but I know music has been both a refuge and one of the greatest challenges in my life (the never-ending desire to grow in one’s art, the realities/demands of building a career and making a living and finding community/support in a competitive industry). I also know how blessed I am to be a musician, and hope the gratitude, joy, and delight I feel will inform everything I do musically.

LJN:  You were a classically trained pianist. How did you decide to convert to jazz?

HS:  My first teacher (who was wonderful) taught me sound technique and laid a solid foundation. When I was around 9, she sent me to a Russian teacher who was incredibly strict. I studied with her until I graduated from high school. She was, and is, an excellent teacher in many ways, but she didn’t let me think for myself in terms of musical choices and ideas - it was "her way" and no other! I really admired her and was a dutiful student, but in spite of myself, small instances of rebellion poked through here and there (“...but I like Michael Jackson and I enjoy listening to Madonna!”).

When I was almost finished with my undergraduate studies in classical piano at the University of Texas at Austin, a friend invited me to a Harry Connick Jr. concert. Being a classical nerd who was always practising, I didn’t know who he was. She reassured me that I would have a good time, plus he was very cute.

Connick and his big band were very entertaining, but in the middle of the concert, he played some solo piano pieces a la stride/Professor Longhair, and I was blown away: how come no one had told me about this?!? And I didn’t know you were allowed to play the piano like that!! Ironic because I attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) where so many great jazz artists have graduated from - Jason Moran, Chris Dave, Eric Harland, Robert Glasper, Kendrick Scott, Jamire Williams, and the list continues!

I lived on the classical side of the hallway, right across from the jazz side, but never had one musical interaction with the jazzers. That’s how deeply I was entrenched in the classical world. I don’t discount my classical background though - as a pianist and violinist who played in youth symphonies and chamber groups I was exposed to a wide range of music, played all types of instrumentations, and had my technique together, which saved me lots of time when I was first learning jazz.

LJN:  How do you practise?

HS:  I’m always working on things I want to improve in my playing  - my rhythm - sense of time/groove, my comping vocabulary, harmonic ideas and concepts, greater confidence and freedom in improvising, playing solo jazz piano (which has always terrified me but I’m gradually making peace with it and even enjoying it, thanks to more and more opportunities to perform solo), listening to and learning new music, learning other folks’ music for various gigs and recordings, deepening my technique, and writing music and, and…wow I need to go practice!!

LJN:  You are probably best known in the UK for your work with the Mingus Big Band. How did you come to be involved in that project?

HS:  I used to go hear the Mingus Band and sat in with the band a couple of times. I think the first gig I did with them was in 2007, and it’s been an amazing experience playing the music of Mingus and working with all the brilliant musicians who play in the Band. Mingus’ music is incredibly fresh, thought-provoking, assimilating a wide range of influences in such a masterful way, and his legacy band reflects this same spirit of adventurous creativity and daring, which I love being a part of! Playing Mingus’ music stretches me - it’s humbling, inspiring, challenging me to be open, to risk, to go for it!

LJN:  As well as playing in the male-dominated environment of the Mingus Big Band, you also play with some high-profile women in jazz like Terri Lyne Carrington and Ingrid Jensen. What’s it like to play in these 2 different realms?

HS:  Men and women are different creatures, but as musicians I think our goal is the same - to create and share the best music we can. How men and women relate and communicate with one another do differ, and it can affect the stage dynamic, both positively and negatively, but when it comes to the music, for me the guy/girl distinctions fade in importance. Music is bigger than all of us, it will outlast our individual lives, and it is a gift - and that is what I focus on in whatever band I’m playing in.

LJN:  What music have you been listening to in the last week?

HS:  I’ve been listening to the music from various gigs I just finished - a Brazilian project (Brazilian music is fabulous!), a specialized project with a clarinettist, and a recording project. I try to listen to the recordings colleagues have passed along like Walter Smith III and George Colligan. I have been re-discovering Keith Jarrett’s trio recordings and Wayne Shorter is always a part of my life’s soundtrack. I can’t remember where it happened but I recently heard some classic hiphop that made me go back to one of the classics: De La Soul’s ‘Stakes Is High’. Yummy music.

LJN: Your recording last year, ‘Anthem for a New Day’, was your first on the Concord label and had great reviews. Are you preparing for another album?

HS:  Yes!! I have 2-3 albums in mind - I want to do a solo piano recording at some point. I’m also building my repertoire for larger ensembles, including Big Band (yikes!!), but right now I am finishing a project made possible by a “New Jazz Works” grant I received from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The project is called “Sung With Words” and is a collaborative work with the wonderful American poet Dana Gioia. We call it a jazz song cycle, where I use his poetry as lyrics for songs. We’re debuting the music in December and I look forward to hearing how it all turns out! The vocalists will be Carmen Lundy and Carolyn Leonhart. I hope to record it in early 2016.

LJN : What are your hopes for the rest of your career?

HS:  I guess I just want to keep growing and getting better in my art - as a pianist, as a composer, as a player/band member. I would love to be able to work with folks I admire in creative, collaborative situations. I am always aiming towards having a regular band - to have enough work to sustain and develop my sound/vision. I want to keep writing/composing and learning, to never lose that sense of curiosity, adventure, and joy which I have been so blessed to experience as an artist.

I am always thrilled to present my band and music in the UK. My first time was at the 2014 Wigan International Jazz Festival, and I look forward to meeting the UK audiences soon!

Kathryn Shackleton is the promoter at Watermill Jazz.

Helen Sung will be appearing at:-

Watermill Jazz, Dorking on Thursday 12th November with her quartet featuring Logan Richardson on tenor sax, Josh Ginsburg on double bass and E. J. Strickland on drums 

Milton Court Concert Hall on Sunday 15th November  as oart of the EFG London Jazz Festival in a double bill with Marcin Wasilewski, which is sold out.

Sue Mingus talks about Helen Sung in 2012

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