Helen Sung: Going Express (2010)
Whether an artist is performing in a play or playing music, doing so live onstage is one of the most challenging acts. Every nuance is captured by an eager audience and, in the case of Going Express, a sensitive sound engineer. There is no room for error; every slip can be fatal. Pianist Helen Sung makes short work of these concerns, however, navigating the music in spritely fashion and with the delicate touch of slender fingers like feathers on the weighted keyboard. Going Express is a dramatic turnout, and features a fine ensemble that includes bassist Lonnie Plaxico, drummer Eric Harland and saxophonist Seamus Blake.
So spectacular are the musicians' responses to the music that there are surprises at every turn: Plaxico with his masterful, groaning arco playing when least expected, Harland with his delicate brushes and rumbling mallets that suddenly turn the heat on from a cool break in the music, and the wail of Blake's soprano saxophone every so often, to inform short memories of his astounding manipulation of the reed in his mouthpiece.
However, it is ultimately Sung who takes the breath away with her prodigious talent as an instrumentalist, interpreter of music and composer in her own right. The Texas-born, globetrotting Sung has deep roots in fields of the dreamy idioms of classical and jazz. She can sound a blue note with such elemental sadness that her art seems to spring from her very soul. Hers is a decidedly feminine voice, given to softness as well as a breathless excitement when she discovers something that wows her. Her feelings spring forth for all to feel and hear, as she lets fly with a generous ebullience that also puts warmth and childlike wonder in her playing. Sung experiences music in her heart and informs musicians and audiences of this with pulsations and fibrillations that are so real that sighs, gasps and breaths must be held or else emotions will be overwhelmed with utter splendor. Her phrases are short and sometimes she repeats them with dampers on. She plays these as if she were taking a breath, sighing, or jabbering excitedly. Yet she can sustain longer lines too, with leonine grace, stretching and relaxing just as if she were informing the lines with an interminable exhalation.
Sung says that "Going Express" is typical of her charactera racy sense of wanting to swallow the moment whole. However she can also be pensive as her thoughts unfold on "Hope Springs Eternally." Her interpretations of Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud" and "Eronel" are spectacular. Sung never tries to play Monk as Monk, but draws the emotions out of the music, making it her own, before she again pirouettes through it. On this album, however, her finest moments could well be in the manner in which she plays Meshell Ndegeocello's marvelous chart, "Bitter," which is so filled with pathos that its drama makes Sung's music something to die for every time she plays.
Track Listing: Going Express; Bitter; Love for Sale; Hope Springs Eternally; In Walked Bud; Eronel; Bittersweet; Lotus Blossom.
Personnel: Helen Sung: piano; Seamus Blake: tenor and soprano saxophones; Lonnie Plaxico: bass; Eric Harland: drums.