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Helen Sung at the Howard Brubeck Theatre

Jim Trageser By

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Helen Sung
Howard Brubeck Theatre, Palomar Community College
Steinway Series
San Marcos, CA
May 17, 2015

Helen Sung closed out Palomar College's first annual Steinway Series in the newly remodeled Howard Brubeck Theatre with a stunning display of solo jazz piano that not only provided a resounding close to the new musical series in northern San Diego County, but showed why Sung is among the most highly regarded young jazz pianists. (Sung's performance followed those of classical pianists Ching-Ming Cheng (April 19) and Danny Holt (March 22), and jazz, rock and pop pianist Mike Garson (Feb. 8)).

It was Sung's second appearance on campus in as many years, and the intimacy of the small theater was amplified by Sung's reminiscences between songs—chatting with the audience as if it were only a few friends over for dinner.

But it was her playing, in an environment (solo piano) that Sung at one point described as "both terrifying and thrilling," that captivated the audience. She opened with a muscular, assertive cover of the Gershwin chestnut "Nice Work If You Can Get It" that hearkened to Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, then switched gears for an introspective Monk medley. She then performed two originals of her own before offering up another interpretation, this a bouncy, R&B-tinged reading of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love," then closing out with an homage to James P. Johnson with "Carolina Shout."

It was a remarkable display of stylistic range, and yet one with an overriding consistency that shows Sung's emerging musical voice. No matter whether it was bop, swing or stride, every song was illuminated with a deeply American attitude: assertive and confident, bordering on cockiness.

And yet, surprisingly, Sung's playing is not particularly imbued in the blues. Having come to music through a strict classical upbringing with an anti-jazz classical teacher, Sung only discovered jazz in her 20s—thus the lack of a blues feel to her playing.

And yet, unlike the many European jazz musicians who likewise lack a blues underpinning, Sung's playing is not particularly shaped by her classical background, either. There is none of the somewhat steril "Eurojazz" (or what in a 2011 interview she referred to as "ECM jazz") sound that marks some continental playing. Sung is a ready improviser, with a deep library of motifs drawn from popular music that inform her solos and bring a swing to it. Just not a blues-based swing.

In many ways, her playing reminds of Monty Alexander—the Jamaica-born pianist who also came to jazz as an adult, and whose early years were spent playing covers of American R&B and Caribbean calypso.

Regardless, Sung's playing is expressive and exuberant, with an obvious joy that drives her playing and promises much in the years to come.

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