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Helen Sung: (re)Conception

Dan McClenaghan By

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Pianist Helen Sung has got the swing thing down. A graduate of the inaugural class of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, Sung has put out a series of increasingly distinctive CDs, from her ear-grabbing debut, Push (Blue Moon, 2004), to the classical leaning Sungbird (After Albeniz) (Sunnyside, 2007), through to 2010's quintet outing, Going Express (Sunnyside), with a trio stop for the outstanding Helenistque (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2006).

A classically-trained pianist who didn't discover jazz until her college years, Sung's conversion to improvisation and swing must certainly have required enormous drive and effort, but it has paid great artistic dividends. On (re)Conception, her fifth CD as a leader, the pianist revisits the trio format, bringing her own original voice into a finer focus on a set of jazz standards, an engaging Burt Bacharach tune, and one first-rate original.

The recording date was called on short notice, which can mean a disaster or a sound full of freshness and spontaneity. Sung's sense of wonder and adventure, in conjunction with an excellent choice of trio mates—drummer Lewis Nash and bassist Peter Washington—strikes a winning note straight through. The title tune, a re-stylizing of pianist George Shearing's 1949-penned "Conception," opens the disc swinging. Sung is virtuosic and full of surprises and the Nash/Washington team supplies an ebullient groove.

Frank Loesser's "I Believe in You" sparkles into a jaunty momentum, with the trio locked into a collective jubilance, while the group's take on Jerry Bock's "Far From Home" shifts gears; a tune that sounds like heartbreak, featuring Sung's intricate and gentle touch and Washington and Nash's understated accompaniment.

The only Sung original, "Duplicity," captures the mood of stealthy deception to perfection, with a prowling rhythm, and a forlorn and sometimes confused feeling from the piano melody.

Sung visits composer/bandleader Duke Ellington's music on the often-recorded "C Jam Blues," with a strutting bounce in its step, and the less familiar but easily swinging "Everything But You." Between those tunes, Sung offers up Bacharach's "Wives and Lovers," treating the pretty melody reverently at first, before stretching out into a vibrant improvisational foray that includes some nice comping behind Nash's energetic bass solo. "Crazy, He Calls Me," a vehicle for vocalist Billie Holiday, has an inward mood, with Sung splashing some new colors on its beautiful melody.

It wouldn't be a Sung standards date without some Thelonious Monk. Whether she is playing the bebop legend's idiosyncratic music in concert or in the studio, Sung always seems to find new angles and bright spots. "Teo" sounds wound tight at first here, like a stretched rubber band, before it flies free with a headlong freedom.

A superb jazz musician, no matter what the ensemble configuration, Sung seems to shine brightest and swing most mightily in the trio format, as she does on (re)Conception.

Track Listing: (re)Conception; I Believe in You; Far From Home; Duplicity; C Jam Blues; Wives and Lovers; Crazy, He Calls Me; Teo; Everything But You.

Personnel: Helen Sung: piano; Peter Washington: bass; Lewis Nash: drums

Title: (re)Conception | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: SteepleChase Records

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