Classically trained Houstonian Helen Sung, who's on her way back to Houston to sing at Cezanne Jazz this weekend, was bitten by the jazz bug early on in her musical career - an event that dramatically changed her vision on music.
"I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist and was finishing my undergraduate degree in classical piano performance at the University of Texas at Austin when a friend invited me to a Harry Connick, Jr. concert," she explained via e-mail.
"He was appearing in Austin with his big band, which was entertaining, but in the middle of the concert he sat down and played some solo piano pieces. I remember wanting to jump out of my skin - here was a guy playing the piano in a way I had been taught all my life not to do, playing music that was so alive, so vivid and thrilling - it was a visceral experience. After that, I immediately enrolled in an Intro to Jazz Piano class with some friends, and then it was no looking back: I listened to whatever I could get my hands on, read whatever books I could find, begged the UT jazz piano professor for lessons, enrolled in jazz courses...I really wanted to understand everything about jazz and be a part of it."
On her latest release Anthem For A New Day (Concord), she plays various styles, going from straight ahead to contemporary and Latin, including an inventive cover of Chick Corea's "Armando's Rhumba" and "Brother Thelonious," a tribute to the late bebop-era composer and pianist.
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Though her sound is often described as 'classically inspired' (especially on solo piano pieces), she doesn't exactly agree with that interpretation. "I consider myself a jazz musician and I've worked very hard to be an authentic jazz artist (chasin' that swing!) vs. being a classical musician who plays some jazz," she says. "My music is firmly rooted in the jazz tradition I was taught at the Monk Institute; however, my teachers also said it was our responsibility to move the music forward and to develop our own voices. And one's voice is a reflection of oneself, so certain elements of classical music like orchestral textures and colors (I also played the violin), chamber music techniques, compositional forms, etc. definitely inform my composing and arranging. I would say my music bridges the jazz and classical worlds and is marked by the love for a good groove."
Sung has fond memories of growing up in Houston, where she first got inspired to become a performer. "It was a big, urban city, and at that time there was a strong commitment to the arts in the public schools. So I was very fortunate - both my elementary and middle schools were strong magnet schools with robust and excellent music programs," she recalls.
"And then of course, attending Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts was an invaluable experience. One quality of Houston that stays with me is the idea of 'room' - lots of space and room, both literally and figuratively, which I appreciate even more now as a resident of New York City. And this impacts how I approach music: where I always try to be open, to be curious, and to be brave."
Helen Sung performs Friday, January 31 and Saturday, February 1 at 9 and 10:45 p.m. at Cezanne Jazz, 4100 Montrose Boulevard. Tickets are $20. For information call 832-592-7464 or visit http://www.cezannejazz.com