Monday, June 02, 2008

Interview with Pianist/Composer Helen Sung

Pianist Helen Sung was kind enough to do an email interview with me several months ago. It has certainly taken me long enough to post this. Since conducting it, fellow blogger Willard Jenkins (a voice on jazz I respect very much) posted an interview with Ms. Sung on his blog, The Independent Ear. I was particularly struck with Helen's latest release as a leader, Sungbird (after Albéniz) was released last summer on Sunnyside Records. A more complete bio can be found here.

I've heard that you were well on your way to becoming a classical player when you began discovering and playing jazz. Having attended High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston you must have been exposed to jazz? How is it that it wasn't until college that you became serious about playing jazz? Do you feel that you had any advantages or disadvantages from starting to play jazz at the time you did?

Helen Sung: Believe it or not, I wasn't exposed to the terrific jazz program at [High School for the Performing and Visual Arts] when I was a student there. I was trained by a strict Russian classical pianist (i.e. classical music is the only music you should listen to) so I was pretty firmly entrenched. Also, I probably unconsciously avoided checking it out - I was intimidated by jazz music, by the fact that jazzers could improvise...something I had no idea about and couldn't do at all. Thinking back, probably the only jazz I heard growing up was on Sesame Street, Charlie Brown and Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood.

My junior year at University of Texas, a friend asked me to go to a Harry Connick, Jr. concert. I had no idea who he was. I enjoyed the big band, but in the middle of the concert he played a couple of solo piano pieces. I was floored - I didn't know a piano could be played like that - and sound like so much fun. Not that classical music wasn't fun, but it's totally different - the vibe, the feel, the way it made me feel. The next semester, a group of us classical pianists decided to take an intro to jazz class for fun. After I heard Tommy Flanagan's solo on "Confirmation," I was hooked!

Of course I wish I'd started playing jazz earlier. It was a huge paradigm shift in every way, not to mention trying to learn how to improvise, and I sometimes feel like I'm still playing "catch-up." But I guess the important thing is that I started!

Do you still live partially in both the jazz and classical worlds? Do you see a blurry line between the two or are they two completely discrete disciplines?

HS: I don't really do much classical music right now, although if given the opportunity, I'd be happy to do so. Classical and jazz music are definitely different, but after a certain point, it's all about sound and a personal voice...and that's where I'd like to live.

You are an original member of the inaugural class of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance's program at New England Conservatory, the 2007 winner of the Mary Lou Williams Piano Competition and have toured and recorded with some of the biggest names in jazz. Have these distinctions opened doors that might have not been open to you otherwise? Does it take just as much work now as it does the next guy to get gigs? Do you feel you have experienced discrimination for being a woman playing jazz despite these impressive credits?

HS: In this business one needs every break one can get! If I hadn't had the experience at the Monk Institute, I'd be a very different player I'm very grateful for that opportunity. There is no substitute for contact with the old jazz masters, and I've been fortunate to even get to work with some of them. Even with those blessings, yes, it "takes just as much work as the next guy" to get work. It's an eternal hustle! In terms of being a woman in the jazz world, of course there are disadvantages - but as Jimmy Heath once told me, every disadvantage can be turned into an advantage! And that's what I try to stay focused on.

Obviously you are interested in the work of Isaac Albéniz (a little-known late 19th and early 20th century Spanish composer), but some may not know that you have a substantial influence in your playing and arranging from contemporary non-jazz forms. Any favorites besides Me'shell Ndegeocello, whom you covered in your recent shows in Philly and DC in support of Sungbird? Are there any artists or bands whose work you'd like to cover or scrutinize in greater depth in order to cover in a jazz setting?

HS: There's so much great music, not enough time! I love a lot of the great R&B groups, hiphop, soul, pop, etc. Folks like Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Parliament, Prince, Tribe, Common. I also love Brazilian music, Cuban, etc. etc.! Right now I don't have any plans to specifically cover any particular artist or band. I usually let the musical need(s) of whatever phase I'm in inspire my choices (for example, it wasn't that I was specifically interested in Albeniz's work - in fact, I'm not that familiar with the rest of his compositions - it just happened those pieces fit what I was looking for in a particular situation). I also hope to keep working on my composition skills, especially in writing for larger ensembles.

What do you like most about playing with musicians like Matt Parrish, Reuben Rogers, Kendrick Scott, Nasheet Waits, John Ellis and Marcus Strickland? What draws you to their styles as soloists and as members of your band? What do you think might have drawn Steve Wilson, Lonnie Plaxico or Clark Terry to your playing to include you in their respective bands?

HS: I like musicians who are grounded in the jazz tradition but also musically adventurous, not afraid to try new things, take risks, etc. I think that describes all the folks you mentioned. I think the fact that I'm willing to work hard on other people's music opened up doors with various musicians. Clark Terry is simply an incredibly generous human being who has given so many musicians that all-important chance to play! He has a huge legacy of musicians that he has taught, encouraged, and inspired.

Is there an instrument you'd really like to play or record on besides piano? If you could go back in time and play with or witness five artists live, whom might you choose (not just jazz...)

HS: I also play the violin, and would like to record on that one day, although I'll have to put in some serious practice time beforehand(!). I would've loved to seen Louis Armstrong, Bud Powell, and J.S.Bach, the concert where Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was premiered, and Miles (all of Miles bands!)