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Helen Sung: Helenistique

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The title Helenistique, a pun on the leader's name, calls to mind (also punningly) things Greek. The reference puzzled me at first, but it seems to now refer to this sterling young pianist's ability to sculpt intelligent and vital improvisations. She is a confident, technically brilliant keyboard artist who uses a fertile imagination to create new lines and shapes from her raw materials. Thus these "standards," played by countless pianists and other jazz players, take on different colors and textures and tell new stories in her hands.

She and her cohorts—bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Lewis Nash—take Sung's sense of composition and work beautifully together to emerge with new wine taken from the traditional old bottles. Limited to the framework of a CD, the trio boldly builds small yet authoritative monuments that cause the listener to go inside the tunes and find the richness there. These standards have been reconstucted!

Despite the fact that most of the tunes start with a statement of the melody, it feels as if we're immediately thrust into the heat of invention. "Lover, for example, starts with that familiar waltz melody but that only serves as a sort of impressionistic introduction to more ferocious and passionate discoveries. These three truly cook—Sung with a virtuoso's command of every aspect of the jazz piano, Hodge and Nash pounding out a rhythmic pulse against which the pianist can take off. When they return to the melody, it's with a new assured strength.

Sung is not constrained by categories of style or composition. She is relaxed enough to offer a knockout stride version of the old James P. Johnson chestnut "Carolina Shout, which—though technically breathtaking—actually feels like a welcome quiet moment. Her playing throughout has the sense of wonder that one can find in Ahmad Jamal or even Erroll Garner, but it also flies off into new worlds.

Her live set at the Kitano in late August (where Hodge was replaced by Richie Goods) made use of the same kind of power and dazzling technique, but—and this is a small carp—it might have benefited from some of the economy and the moments of respite found on the recording. Each tune seemed to have an introduction where Sung dug in and located an emotional space and shape for the tune. And then she was off.

She presented "Where or When with a whole broad set of directions. It opened with Goods' arco bass—slightly shaky—stating the melody, and then found an exotic groove reminiscent of "Poinciana. As on the album, Sung rephrased Monk's "Bye-Ya and revealed a technique almost classical in approach that made every transition feel natural. And in tribute to Kenny Barron, who was in the audience, she spun dizzying lines out of his "Voyage. The Kitano set was a very strong live complement to the beauty and intimacy of the CD. Somehow, though, the live music, with all its excitement, was intimate as well, and the audience sensed and reacted to that.


Track Listing: H*Town; Lover; Sweet and Lovely; Voyage; Willow Weep For Me; Where or When; Black Narcissus; Bye Ya; Cottontail; Carolina Shout; Alphabet Street; H*Town (reprise).

Personnel: Helen Sung: piano; Derrick Hodge: bass; Lewis Nash: drums.

Title: Helenistique | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Fresh Sound New Talent


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