Helen Sung – Sungbird After Albeniz, (2007) Sunnyside Records
Get your credit cards out for buying this one, it’s a real winner. Very rarely has the combination of jazz and classical genres worked out. Miles’ “Sketches of Spain” and MJQ’s “Blues on Bach” just about covers it, and it’s understandable if you’re skittish about trying it again. Pianist Helen Sung has done it right, intertwining solo piano works in the Romantic vein with mixtures of band pieces that imbibe influences from Coltrane to Jamal. Six of the compositions are from the 19th century composer Isaac Albeniz, yet Sung brings them up to date in a stirringly remarkable fashion. Compositions like “Prelude,” “Tango” and “Capricho Catalan” are exquisite, intimate and fluorescent pieces that conjure up images of Basque countryside. Meanwhile, Sung’s own “Preamble,” is reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Crescent,” and “Shall We Tango?” harkens back to Pershing Room Ahmad Jamal. Marcus Strickland gives off some remarkably restrained sax work on the session, being able to show feeling and emotion without breaking the desired atmosphere, no small feat. The rhythm section of Samuel Torres (percussion), Nasheet Waits (d) and Reuben Rogers (b) is sympathetic without being overly deferential. They know they are onto something important on this recording. I personally guarantee you will be as fascinated by this disc on the 20th listening as on the first. Find it now! George W. Harris — All About Jazz – Los Angeles
For the pianist’s third CD (not counting Live at the Blue Note, only available online), Helen Sung has chosen to go in a completely new direction. While last year’s excellent trio release, Helenistique, focused on standards and jazz classics, with Sungbird (After Albeniz) she returns to her musical roots. Classically trained, Sung didn’t pick up on jazz until college, and then went on to become a semifinalist in the 1999 Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition. In 2006 she took the band on this CD – saxman Marcus Strickland, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Nasheet Waits (but not percussionist Samuel Torres) – on a tour of Spain and Andorra. She decided to arrange for the group a classical work by a Spanish composer, and chose “Espana, Op. 165,” a suite of six pieces for solo piano, written in 1890 by Isaac Albeniz.
Sung movingly performs the six short pieces solo on this recording, with little embellishment, the music an engaging combination of standard classical forms and Spanish folk idioms such as flamenco, tango, malaguena and zortzico. They served as inspiration for her own compositions that fill out the CD (albeit still only a disppointing 42:37 in length). Sung and Strickland (on tenor and soprano) both deliver crisply articulated and soundly constructed solos on the pianist’s lilting “Shall We Tango,” the tango/waltz tempoed “Sungbird,” and the intense “Free Fusion,” the latter remindful in its exuberant spirit of Michel Camilo. Rogers solos authoritatively on his features, “Malaguena Miniatura” and “Capricho American.” Waits provides tasteful and assured rhythm support on all these tunes. This successfuil project will appeal to both jazz and classical listeners.
– Scott Albin –JazzTimes – Nov. 2007