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Helen Sung: Anthem For A New Day

Dan McClenaghan By

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There's a bit of the iconoclast in pianist Helen Sung. Her musical journey began in the classical world, and didn't take its rebellious tangent into jazz until her college years, after a chance encounter with a Harry Connick, Jr. concert, in a "bang on the piano" solo interlude. And then there was pianist Tommy Flanagan's solo on saxophonist Charlie Parker "Confirmation," and Sung was jazz bitten, in the best way.

Anthem for a New Day, Sung's sixth album—her first on Concord Records—represents a full blossoming of Sung's talents—as a pianist, band leader, arranger and writer.

Not that Sung has turned her back on her classical experience. You can hear it in her take on Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing,)" which doesn't swing much, but does indeed showcase her classically tinged technique. And the album's opener, "Brother Thelonious"—written on commission as a theme song for a Belgian ale of the same name— features a crisp Sung piano solo that revs into high gear for some "piano banging" of the highest and most technically-proficient order.

This is mostly a sextet outing, with Sung employing a trumpeter (the always marvelous Ingrid Jensen) for the first time on one of her discs. Jensen's front line playing with saxophonist Seamus Blake opens "Brother Thelonious," leading into her searing trumpet solo that gives way to Blake's robustly smoldering bluster that Sung fans into high flames on her solo.

Sung brings in some guests. Clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera joins the pianist in an ebullient duet (with accompanying palmas) on Chick Corea's "Armundo's Rhumba," and violinist Regina Carter sits in on "Hidden," a pensive Sung original, and on a very distinctively-arranged Great American Songbook tune, "Never Let Me Go."

"Chaos Theory," another Sung-penned tune, takes things into freer territory, with the piano slipping into an exquisite rapid- fire mode. Sung adds another color to her palette on the disc's title tune, with bass clarinetist John Ellis sitting in. Beginning as a dark-hued tone poem, with Sung shining on Fender Rhodes, the sound shifts to a proud and bold proclamation, a neo-funk/free flying "Here I Am!" anthem that has Sung, Jensen and Blake playing off each other in what sounds like a choreographed street fight, jazz style.

And what has Helen Sung done to Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy?" The sextet sounds like a big band; Monk's quirky angularity is translated into an anthem, that leads into the set's closer, a Sung piano solo that represents, it seems a centered-ness, a confident calm from the always evolving Helen Sung.

Track Listing: Brother Thelonious; Armando's Rhumba; Hidden; It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing); Hope Springs Eternally; Anthem For A New Day; Never Let Me Go; Chaos Theory; Epistrophy; Equipoise.

Personnel: Helen Sung: piano, Fender Rhodes; Seamus Blake: tenor and soprano saxophones; Ingrid Jensen: trumpet; Reuben Rogers: bass; Obed Calvaire: drums; Samuel Torres: percussion; John Ellis: bass clarinet (6); Regina Carter: violin (3, 7); Paquito D'Rivera: clarinet (2).

Title: Anthem For A New Day | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Concord Records


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