Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Introducing Helen Sung (Excerpted from "Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz")

With the help of a wonderful copyeditor and a wonderful proofreader, I am pulling together over 350 pages of interviews and introductory material for what will be my first book, entitled Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. We're taking our time to make sure the book is nothing less than spectacular, and there is still much work to be done. In the meantime, I would like to share with you some excerpts from the book. Each interview will be presented in a straightforward, Q&A format, so that the reader can "hear" each musician's story in her own words.

I hope you enjoy these previews of what will be a truly expansive, entertaining, and in-depth look at jazz and the musicians, specifically women, who are taking the music into the future.

Helen Sung (pianist, composer)

The piano may not be the first instrument most people associate with Texas. But in the early 1900s it wasn’t unusual to find a piano in homes of both poor and wealthy families throughout the state, where several immigrant communities absorbed Spanish, Mexican, Cajun, German, East European, and African-American musical idioms. Along with the guitar, pianos were played in sharecropping communities, the popular musical styles of the day being “rags” (or “ragtime”) and “slow blues.” Classical and popular music would be played from sheet music, note for note, but when the grownups weren’t around, improvisation would inevitably happen. Brothers George and Hersal Thomas and later Moon Mullican (“King of the Hillbilly Pianists”) are a few of the Texas-born pianists who helped to develop if not outright invent the rhythmic concepts, bass lines, and melodic phrasing that infused pre-1950s rock and roll and jazz.

Houston-born pianist and composer Helen Sung did not grow up playing blues, boogie-woogie, rock and roll, or anything else close to jazz. But in her last year as an undergraduate classical piano performance major at the University of Texas at Austin, she attended a concert by New Orleans pianist and singer Harry Connick Jr., and was deeply inspired by what she heard.

“Classical music never affected me like that,” says Sung of that concert in her interview. “There was an irresistible passion and energy in (Connick’s) playing. And the fact that he was improvising blew me away, because classical musicians are all about the written notes.”

In the years after that concert, Sung would go on to study with some of the masters of jazz at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. In 1999, she was a semi-finalist in the institute’s Jazz Piano Competition, and in 2007, won the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition. Sung has played with several jazz masters, including Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Clark Terry, and appears on Terri Lyne Carrington’s 2001 Grammy-winning album, The Mosaic Project. Sung has also released several highly praised albums, including Anthem for a New Day, which incorporates her classical training with jazz in what she describes as an “organic and integrated way.”

Several of the musicians interviewed in this book studied and seriously considered a career as a classical musician before making a shift to playing jazz, but Sung’s transition is one of the most dramatic. In her interview, she speaks candidly about the challenges she faced in mastering its language.

“All I knew is that I wanted to find out more about this music,” says Sung. “I wanted to be able to really play it, but not as a classical player who could fake it because she had the chops, you know? I wanted to be authentic, genuine. I felt jazz was a music that had to be respected and honored in that way.”

Helen Sung "Anthem for a New Day"

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