Helen Sung: San Diego, CA, September 15, 2011

Dan McClenaghan By

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Helen Sung
San Diego Wine and Culinary Arts Center
San Diego, CA

September 15, 2011

From post World War II through the 1970s, what is now called San Diego's "Gaslamp Quarter," centered on 5th Avenue in the in the city's downtown, was a neon-lit area of beer bars dives, pornographic theaters, massage parlors, unseemly strip clubs and a variety of greasy spoons catering to the town's young sailors. San Diego was, and is, a Navy town. But in the early 1980s, the interest in refashioning and sprucing up the area blossomed into action. An unseemly blight was renovated and modernized, and the Quarter is now brimming with swanky eateries, classy watering holes and fashionable shopping spots. It is a vibrant scene lit by electric gas lamps and brimming with attractive young people, and the drinks and good food flow around the sidewalk tables draped with white tablecloths anchored by carnation-holding flower vases and more cell phones and Blackberries and various other WiFi devices than you can shake a piece of sheet music at.

On Thursday, September 15, 2011, a smartly-dressed young woman who would have fit right in with that hip crowd on Fifth Avenue sat at a piano in the San Diego Wine and Culinary Arts Center's Dizzy's, in downtown San Diego, a couple of octaves away from the Gaslamp's thriving scene. Alone, in a sound check/warm-up mode, she played James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," a song from the era of the actual gas lamps—those late nineteenth/early twentieth century street lights fueled by natural gas that required a manually lighting each night. Stride piano, à la James P. Johnson, has an old time yet timeless sound, and Helen Sung, the night's pianist, maintained the reverence for the classic tune but also pulled the stride sound into the new millennium with her own personal voice, and with an uncommon spontaneity that would receive and extraordinary re-visitation later that night, in a solo section of her trio set with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith.

Sung, whose profile has been on a steady rise since she graduated from the inaugural class of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, was touring in support of (re)Conception (Steeplechase Records, 2011), the second trio outing in her discography and following the outstanding Helenistque (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2006).

Sung opened her second San Diego show in two years with Jerome Kern's gem, "This Song Is You," leader and trio ambling into the familiar melody, then catching fire, with a master class in what swing is all about—swing and groove and intrepid in-the-moment vitality.

A renovation of pianist George Shearing 1949 bebop hit, "Conception," "(re)Conception" in the hands of Sung, continued in the mode of the opener, with the trio taking a pretty melody and giving it a stretch and twist, adding some space inside Shearing's original composition.

Having swung hard out of the gate with the standards, the trio slipped into a reflective and slightly abstract mood on the Sung original, "Touch." The melody was inspired by a poem of the same name, written by Dana Gioia. The tune had a drifting, ethereally beautiful sound, with Smith injecting a murky rumble with the toms behind Sung's engaging abstractions that would have sounded at home on an ECM Records release.

"Sweet and Lovely," the familiar favorite of pianist Thelonious Monk, brought swing back into the room. The trio exuded a palpable joy on the sprightly melody, and if there wasn't enough of a Monk mood with that, a highlight of the night was a Monk medley—"In Walked Bud," "Bye-Ya," and "Eronel"—that had the place jumping.

"Glasswork," another sung original, took the music back to spacious, minimalist territory. The tune was inspired by the Philip Glass soundtrack to the 1992 PBS special Anima Mundi. It was an otherworldly sound featuring clattering drums and thundering bass lines and some of Sung's most delicately pretty and cerebral playing of the night, drawing on her classical training.

Sung gave her trio mates a break as she went solo for a gas lamp-era interlude, featuring Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" followed up by her second exploration—this one for the audience—of "Carolina Shout." The pianist was at her most inspired on this Johnson stride number, beginning with a quite reverent reading that kept gaining momentum, shifting into a transcendent improvisational segment of joyful Sung-ian audacity, verve and originality—the night's peak experience.

The trio closed out with Sung's "H-Town," the pianist's tribute to her hometown, Houston, Texas. It was a soulful, hard-swinging, modern groove of a wrap-up to an inspired night a live jazz.

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