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Pianist Helen Sung with Vocalist Charenee Wade at South Jazz Kitchen

Victor L. Schermer By

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Pianist Helen Sung with Vocalist Charenee Wade
South Jazz Kitchen
Philadelphia, PA
December 14, 2019

On this occasion at the South Jazz Kitchen in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, Helen Sung, a pianist who is an established contributor to the New York and international jazz scenes, brought along vocalist Charenee Wade, who is rapidly gaining attention for her remarkable chops and imaginative ways of structuring a tune, and who is also busy mentoring a coterie of enthusiastic university students, which often signals someone with a special contribution to make.

The first set on this evening consisted of carefully crafted arrangements from Sung's album Sung with Words: A Collaboration with Dana Goia, (Stricker Street Records, 2018), combining Goia's poetry with Sung's piano, composing, and arranging. Goia was not present at the gig. Rather, Wade sang his words, using Sung's melodies and her own improvisations to convey great meaning to each phrase. The sidemen (it occurs to me that this is a bad word for a jazz ensemble where each musician is of greatest importance, but of course we still use it) were mostly different from the record date. Saxophonist John Ellis is on the album, but bassist David Wong and drummer Rudy Royston, who were not, nevertheless proved a perfect match. Despite them not being the original recording ensemble, they performed Sung's rather complex arrangements with panache. The result was a stunning and attention-grabbing synthesis of poetry and jazz, two means of expression that are related but require great skill to combine effectively.

The introductory song in the set was, however, a lively instrumental composed by Sung. inspired by a Goia poem called "Meeting at the Lighthouse," with a reference to the iconic nightclub by that name in Hermosa Beach, California. Structured largely by a drum-driven emphasis on the downbeat, the tune "Convergence " featured Royston setting the pace for hot bop-style improvising by saxophonist Ellis and ending with a rollicking drum solo. It was clear from the beginning that Sung skillfully writes music steeped in various jazz idioms.

Two songs, "Touch" and "Pity the Beautiful," were then counterpoised as a medley. "Touch," began with plucked piano, a quiet drum sound and slow vocal chant, leading up to Sung's piano accompanying Africana-like singing of words about love. "Pity the Beautiful." Goia's latter poem is about the vanity of people who inevitably reveal their faults as they parade before the masses. (In general Goia's poems were elaborations of themes of love, the hypocrisy of fashion and self-display, and other themes that recur in the jazz repertoire, with each having a feeling of the blues.) Sung's music for "Pity the Blues" consisted of a blues melody that plays around cleverly with ¾ time rhythm. Ellis and Sung delivered great saxophone and piano solos coming out of the traditions of Cannonball Adderley and Red Garland respectively. Wade's stunning vocal rendition was like a reflective pool of wistful sounds and words. Wade transformed every song into an improvised composition, reflecting the lifelong strivings of Betty Carter and, more recently, JD Walter.

"Too Bad" featured vocal. saxoophone, and piano solos in that order. But first Wade dramatically read the poem: "Too bad, so sad. You're such a fool to make me mad. Romance, no chance, honey..." Sung used a funky hesitant Latin rhythm to emphasize the feeling of sarcasm in the words. Wade then articulated a chorus of terrific scatting with the Betty Carter influence. Ellis and Sung did exciting solos, and the piece ended with multiple repeats of the first lines of the poem, a kind of lament of descending two note phrases, which led up to the next piece, which was truly in the musical form of a lament, a descending melodic line whose origins were in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with J.J. Johnson's being the iconic modern day jazz example.

Kalief Browder was an African American, a young man who served time on Riker's Island for a crime he said he didn't commit. At the same time that he made efforts to change the system, he experienced great despair and made several suicide attempts, eventually succeeding in ending his tragic life. The words for "Lament for Kalief Browder" were penned by Sung rather than Goia. The piece began with Ellis' tenor saxophone cadenza intro played into the belly of the piano, so the strings resonated, creating a ghostly effect. As the centerpiece of the song, Wade did an extended solo consisting of an agonizing scream suggesting a terrible death.

"In the Shadowland" was an instrumental quiet, reflective ballad with piano, soprano saxophone and bass solos in that order. It amply illustrated how Sung's compositions have the potential to become jazz standards. Her playing on this one echoed Bill Evans. Ellis' soprano saxophone captured the sweetness of a time remembered. And Wong's bass solo brought back memories of Evans' one-of-a-kind but ill-fated bassist Scott LaFaro.

The set concluded with a rocking "Hot Summer Night," a Goia poem: billed as by Sung as "an anthem in the defiance of winter." Wade first read the poem: "Let's go downtown... Summer has come and the young are on fire." She then engaged in a thunder shower of scat singing showing the strong influence of Carter and Walter. There was a powerful ending with Wade and Ellis joining forces, providing an energetic celebratory ending to a memorable set.

Informal interactions among people is a big part of what makes jazz happen. In this case. Rick Lawn, professor emeritus and former Dean of Performing Arts at the University of the Arts joined me for the event, and it was a pleasure to hang out with him along with my friend Lew Krieg, a jazz fanatic from the Poconos and frequenter of the Deerhead Inn. Lawn, a past mentor of Sung from their days at the University of North Texas, was obviously overjoyed to see her again. At my request, he summarized the show for a second opinion as follows: "I was struck by the overall artistry of the band members and how they had developed a group sound. They weren't just playing tunes. I think in large part that is because of the unique compositions that Helen has created for the band. As a pianist, it's obvious that she has complete command of the instrument which no doubt is the result of the intense classical training she had early on in her career." Not a bad comment from a former teacher.

The South Kitchen, a restaurant and jazz parlor established a few short years ago, is deservedly gaining a reputation as a premier jazz club in the city. Owned and operated by the founders of Warmdaddy's, a legendary restaurant featuring New Orleans-style food, the South Kitchen has a relaxed atmosphere, excellent acoustics and sound stage, southern style food and drink, and a friendly and efficient staff, making it an ideal setting for jazz. The shows include both top local musicians and those on international "A-lists" exemplifying a wide variety of styles and genres. It gives a much needed boost to the jazz scene in Philadelphia.

Set List: Convergence (Helen Sung); Pity the Beautiful (Dana Gioia / Helen Sung); Too Bad (Gioia / Sung); Lament for Kalief Browder (H. Sung); In the Shadowland (H. Sung) Hot Summer Night (Gioia / Sung).

Personnel: Helen Sung, piano, composer, leader; Charenee Wade: vocals; John Ellis, tenor saxophone; David Wong: bass; Rudy Royston, drums.

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