Helen Sung: Sung With Words (Stricker Street Records)
In this poetry and jazz collection Helen Sung further validates her position as one of the most accomplished pianists In the New York jazz community, which has an abundance of fine pianists. The quintet supporting Sung thrives on her arrangements and accompaniments as she improvises on themes suggested by seven poems of poet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and—not so coincidentally—the brother of jazz writer and influential blogger Ted Gioia. Sung’s improvisation on “Too Bad,” is one instance of her solo excellence. Another is her instrumental “Lament For Kalief Browder.“ inspired by the case of a young black man from the Bronx who was charged with theft, spent three years in oppressive custody on Rikers Island, then committed suicide. Despite the sadness and injustice of Browder’s story, Sung’s arrangement, the harmonic purity she gives the female vocal backing, John Ellis’s bass clarinet interlude and the energy of drummer Kendrick Scott’s interjections create a kind of stark beauty. Ellis is equally impressive in his tenor and soprano saxophone appearances.
The high quality of the instrumentalists and singers who support Sung makes this what might fairly be called an all-star album. Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen is at the top of her game, soloing with fluidity and daring into the highest register of the horn. Drummer Scott, bassist Reuben Rogers and percussionist Samuel Torres are solid and supportive throughout. Christie Sashiell has the vocal on Sung’s mysterious “Touch.” She, Jean Baylor, Carolyn Leonhart and Charnee Wade—sometimes singly, sometimes combined—are guest vocalists. Their work gives the album atmospheres that help to account for its variety and spirit. Sashiell and Wade collaborate on the amusing “Mean What You Say,” Gioa’s and Sung’s wry social commentary closing a challenging and rewarding album.