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Helen Sung Quartet + 1 at SFJAZZ Center

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Helen Sung Quartet+1
Joe Henderson lab at SFJAZZ Center
San Francisco, CA
March 18, 2022

Raised by immigrants from Taiwan in Houston, Texas, Helen Sung does not fit the traditional stereotype of a jazz musician. Sung was set to be a classical pianist, earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in classical piano at the University of Texas at Austin in 1993 and 1995, respectively. But she was lured to the community of jazz musicians, leaving classical music behind to become one of the most prominent young jazz musicians with seven CDs under her name. She has played with the likes of Terri Lyne Carrington, the Mingus Big Band, Clark Terry, and Wynton Marsalis.

This tour was to promote Quartet+ (Sunnyside, 2022), Sung's new album of compositions from female jazz composers. As it was, in her words, prohibitively expensive to tour with a string quartet, she settled on Jenny Scheinman, which was far from a bad compromise.

An accomplished jazz violinist, Scheinman has recorded with the likes of the Kronos Quartet, Bill Frisell (with whom she has appeared on nine recordings), and Lucinda Williams, among others. But long-time San Franciscans may remember her for her blazing fiddle work with local scene stalwart Charming Hostess, an alt-pop ensemble fronted by the inimitable Jewlia Eisenberg (who tragically died in 2021 of GATA2 deficiency).

Donned in a a silver gown, Helen sat down at the piano and launched into "Feed the Fire," a tune written by the late distinguished jazz pianist Geri Allen. It featured blue-shirted bassist David Wong before saxophonist Dave Ellis jumped in—that was followed by a spirited solo by drummer Kendrick Scott after which the tune ended with a piano flourish.

Next up was a tribute to Mary Lou Williams. Sung had determined that her initial choice, "Mary's Waltz," was originally penned by the great unsung pianist Herbie Nichols, so she added "Roll' Em" to the mix to make sure she had a Williams original included. The former featured a bass solo, a delicate flute solo, and Scheinmann's beautifully lyrical violin solo. "Roll' Em" included an up-tempo violin solo, plucked violin and a solo from Sung.

Sung related that when she met pianist Marian McPartland, she found her quite charming. She featured McPartland's "Melancholy Mood" and "Kaleidoscope" followed, which offered an atmospheric and moody violin solo from Scheinmann and a soprano sax solo from Ellis. Sung grinned as she soloed, her fingers moving with rapidly up and down the keyboard to percussive effect.

The two-part suite "Temporality" ("Elegy for the City," "Time Loops") brought the first show to a close. It featured Scheinmann, displaying delicate fingering on her violin while extracting a mournful tone. Wong fingered his bass with great dexterity, Ellis showed similar skills with his flute, while Scott offered taut drum work.

The concert ended with a well-deserved standing ovation.

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