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Helen Sung at Dizzy's San Diego

Dan McClenaghan By

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Helen Sung
Dizzy's San Diego
September 23, 2010
Helen Sung came to jazz relatively late, during her classical music studies at University of Texas at Austin. After listening to Houston-bred and now New York-based pianist Helen Sung perform at Dizzy's in San Diego, it's hard to imagine her as a classical player, where precision and perfection of technique and adherence to the traditions sit up much more front and center than they do in jazz.

Sung and her quartet, touring in support of the pianist's Going Express (Sunnyside Records, 2010), swung hard and well, explored freedom and abandon and surprise and an unfettered joy that seemed to surge off the leader in waves and wash over a rapt and attentive audience.

Opening with one of Chick Corea's "Children's Songs," Sung and her band mates churned into a turbulent, John Coltrane-like (Impulse! Records era) momentum, full of furious abstraction. Sung's California touring band, with Hamilton Price on bass, Bob Reynolds on soprano and tenor saxophones, along with drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith, give the tune dark hues of the soundtrack to a children's tale full of ominous atmospherics, full of trolls and dangerous deep-shade forests.

From there the group segued into the title tune for Sung's Going Express. The Sung original is frenetic and full speed ahead, and it evolved into a maelstrom on the power of Smith's explosive drumming, with Sung matching her drummer's energy level—no small fete.

Sung took things into a gentler realm with the American Songbook standard, "Never Let me Go," with a delicate, lilting piano approach, showcasing her ability to take a familiar ballad and treat it respect while imbuing it with her own personality.

Sung is a superb interpreter of Thelonious Monk. She closed her debut release, Push (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2004) with the Monk's "Ugly Beauty," and included "Bya Ya" on her marvelous Helenistique (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2006), as well as covering—on that same set—one of Monk's favorite vehicles, "Sweet and Lovely." At the San Diego show she offered up an inspired, crowd-pleasing takes, in medley, of Monk's "In Walked Bud," "Eronel" and "Bye Ya," that had the band, and the audience, locked in to a collective adventure of Sung's exuberant and on-edge exploration of the legendary pianist/composer's tunes.

A highlight in a consistently exciting show was the tune "Bitter," written by the boundary-pushing bassist/composer/performer Meshell Ndegeocello. Bob Reynolds introduced the tune with a Ben Webster woosh on his tenor saxophone, before lending the gentle and introspective, and gorgeous, melody a haunting feeling in front of the deft sparkle of Sung's embellishments.

An artist in the throes of spontaneous creation certainly experiences a sense of joy and wonder. That was obviously the case with Helen Sung this night in San Diego, and it was contagious. In a city not known for its support or enthusiasm for jazz, the near-full house audience was attentive, and genuinely enthusiastic between tunes, rewarding the pianist and her band a heartfelt and extended standing ovation at the show that closed with another highlight: a particulary rousing rendition of her original composition/homage to her hometown, Houston, Texas—"H*Town," from her Helenistique CD.

Helen Sung has come into her own as a major artist. Her San Diego show was a marvelous, energized, spirited set of sounds. Live jazz doesn't get any better.

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