Helen Sung keys in on pioneering women jazz composers with her new ‘Quartet+’ album and tour

Helen Sung
“I had pitched the idea of doing a ‘double quartet’ album some years ago and it kind of languished,” says pianist/composer Helen Sung. “Then, the pandemic happened.”
(Joseph Boggess / Courtesy DL Media)

The Texas-born, New York-born pianist is now on tour with a band that features a violinist


How many female role models did Helen Sung have when she began her transition into jazz at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classical piano performance in 1993 and 1995, respectively?

In a word, none.

How many female role models did Sung have when she earned a full scholarship to the inaugural class at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in 1995?

Again, none, which is surprising given that her excellent new album, “Quartet+,” pays heartfelt tribute to such stellar artists — all pioneering pianists — as Mary Lou Williams, Carla Bley, Geri Allen and Marian McPartland.

“When I got to the Monk Institute, the focus was on (male) jazz masters, so those were my role models,” Sung recalled.

Some of those masters also happened to be her teachers at the institute, including bass legend Ron Carter, saxophonist Jimmy Heath and pianist Sir Roland Hanna. While Sung was there, her student ensemble at the institute did a concert tour with two other jazz masters, both men, pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

“I love and respect all the great women jazz artists,” she said. “But I wasn’t looking to them while I got my act together. I was looking to the people that the masters I was studying with told me to look to, people like (piano giants) Bud Powell and Monk.”

Sung has since served on the jazz faculties at Columbia University, the Juilliard School and the Berklee College of Music. She is now on a national tour that includes a San Diego concert Thursday at the all-ages Dizzy’s in Bay Park.

jazz pianist Helen Sung
A 2021 Guggenheim Fellow recipient, jazz pianist Helen Sung is now on tour to promote her latest album, “Quartet+.”
(Joseph Boggess / Courtesy DL Media

Jazz quartet and string quartet

The tour is to promote “Quartet+,” her eighth and newest album, which was released last September by Sunnyside Records. Six of its songs are by women artists and five are by Sung.

The final selection — the aptly titled “A Grand Night for Swinging” — was written by Dr. Billy Taylor. He founded the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in 1996 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Sung won first-place honors at the festival in 2007.

“Quartet+” showcases her dynamic piano playing, increasingly assured composing skills and her reverence for the work of Williams, Taylor, Bley, Toshiko Akiyoshi and the other artists she lovingly salutes on the album.

The album finds Sung rearranging their music for her quartet and the Harlem Quartet, which features violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador and cellist Felix Umansky.

What results is a compelling synthesis of jazz and chamber-music that is both fresh and steeped in tradition, while avoiding the tropes that such fusions can yield. There is almost nothing on “Quartet+” that suggests conventional Third Stream music, to invoke the phrase composer Gunther Schuller coined in 1957 to describe the fusion of jazz and classical.

“I’m aware of Schuller’s work and the Third Stream tradition. But in terms of being familiar with Third Stream music, I’m not,” said Sung, a former violinist, speaking from a recent tour stop in Cincinnati.

“I played violin in a string quartet, youth symphonies and chamber and baroque ensembles. So, with this album, it’s more a matter of bringing the experience of my youth to it.

“I would, of course, love to bring something new or different — something unique — to it. I hope I did that. I also wanted to compose and arrange music that I really like, because I’m very picky about how I want strings to sound.”

The album had been incubating for quite some time before it became a reality.

“I had pitched the idea of doing a ‘double quartet’ album some years ago and it kind of languished,” recalled Sung, a Texas native and longtime New York resident.

“Then, the pandemic happened. I thought: ‘I have to put this even more on my back burner.’ All my work was gone. I wondered if I could even pay my rent.”

Her new album came to life when Sung received grants from the NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music & Theatre and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music.

“A deadline really gets you in gear!” she said with a laugh. “I’ve never made a record so fast. We recorded the album in three days last April, mixed it in May, mastered it in June, and released it in September. I was flying by the seat of my pants.”

Helen Sung
Helen Sung is shown at a 2015 club date in England. She will perform in San Diego with her four-piece band Thursday at the all-ages Dizzy’s in Bay Park.
(Heritage Images / Getty Images)

Cultural assimilation

Born in Houston, Sung is the daughter of Chinese parents who are double immigrants, having moved first to Taiwan from mainland China, then to Texas. She is acutely aware of the challenges of cultural assimilation — of wanting to fit in and not stand out or appear “foreign.”

Like other Asian-Americans, Sung has experienced the uncomfortable phenomenon of being regarded as a “banana,” meaning — as she puts it — “yellow on the outside and white on the inside.”

“I wanted to be American,” she said. “And if I really unpacked what that meant, it was White, right? I didn’t feel connected to being Chinese, and I was a little ashamed, but I couldn’t hide it. So, there was definitely that tension and conflict of not fitting in anywhere.

“If I didn’t say a word, people assumed I didn’t speak English.”

The turning point for Sung occurred nearly a decade ago when she did a concert tour of China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan with the New York-based Mingus Dynasty big band. It included a performance at the Taiwan International Music Festival.

The program for the festival misbilled her as being Korean, most likely because “Sung” is a common Korean name.

“When they found out I was Chinese and that both my parents grew up in Taipei, a lot of the Taiwanese musicians were like: ‘Oh my god!’ They were so excited, like: ‘You are one of us!’ And I felt this embrace I totally didn’t expect.

“I was also left with a greater appreciation for my parents and how they raised me the way they did (in Texas). Because they were in such a different place, and they sacrificed so much so I could play music.”

Helen Sung Quartet+, featuring Jenny Scheinman, John Ellis, David Wong & Terreon Gully

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Dizzy’s at Arias Hall (behind the Musician’s Association), 1717 Morena Blvd., Bay Park

Tickets: $25

Phone: (858) 270-7467