Howard Adelman

Last night I fell in love – head over heels as the cliché goes. Her name is Helen Sung. She has a diminutive body and small Asian hands and looks like a Korean teenager or a young girl in her early twenties, but you know you cannot trust Asian stereotypes to help you pin down age or place of origin. For she was born in Houston Texas and trained in classical piano and violin at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. She earned her first two music degrees in classical music at the University of Texas in Austin but then switched to jazz and trained at the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Even though she has never before performed in Toronto, if I was a true jazz aficionado instead of just an amateur lover, I would have known about her. Instead her playing hit me like a wallop.  It had power but was extremely delicate. When she played a riff, you could hear every single note. And each was so precise. One time as she turned from the piano to the keyboard – she sometimes played both at the same time – she played and music came forth sounding almost as if it was being performed on a bass instrument and the Israeli bass player in the background, Tamir Shmerling, was not playing at the moment. Great jazz players, like rap artists, play off one another as they go from solos to background players and accompanists, but Helen Sung played as if she were part of a classical quintet. She was always in precise tune with all the other players. She not only listened keenly to each of the other performers, but smiled in joy as she listed to them perform. I have never heard a jazz pianist like her, including the late and justly famed homegrown Oscar Peterson who was dubbed the Maharaja of the keyboard by Duke Ellington.

Lynne Carrington, the celebrated percussionist and her Mosaic Project headlined at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall last night with the Canadian, though now also living in New York, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Tia Fuller on sax and clarinet. The latter two were just brilliant – all the more testimony to Helen Sung’s playing which my ears could not help bringing in the foreground when the others were performing their amazing solos. And that was certainly absolutely not because she made any effort to upstage them. Further, this was in spite of the fact that Terri Lyne Carrington – who is without a doubt a great drummer – often played a little too loud for my taste when she was just providing rhythm for the other players.

At intermission, I immediately bought several CDs, not only of the Mosaic recording, but two copies of Helen Sung’s “Anthem for a New Day”. One will be sent this morning to my thirteen year old grandson – the brilliant chess player that I have written about before – who also plays cool jazz piano. If Helen teaches jazz, I am determined to contact her and see if she would be willing to give Jo Jo lessons. When I got up this morning, I immediately looked up Helen Sung’s bio on the web.

She has been performing as a jazz professional for over sixteen years. Anthem for a New Day is her sixth album. She writes, composes and arranges, but I do not believe that any of her own original music was played last night. I saw Mervon Mehta, the Executive Director of the Royal Conservatory’s Performing Arts series during intermission, and urged him to bring Helen back to Toronto as a soloist. He needed no urging from me. He was as obviously enthusiastic and smitten by her playing as I was. When we go to New York to visit my daughter Shon in the second week in May, I hope she will be performing somewhere in New York so we can see and hear her again. The fusion of classical sensibility with a jazz expression is absolutely breathtaking.

Helen Sung can play rapid-fire jazz with bravado as well as quiet lyrical piece with great soul. Her range of musical hues is stunning. When technical proficiency combines with lyricism and a sense of musicality and exquisite sensitivity to the melody, what emerges is the music of the heavens. Later this morning, I will listen to her own CD and if it is as great as I anticipate, I will order her one or two of her other six albums – ReConception, Going Express, but especially her 2009 album, Brother Thelonius

It is unfair to the other star performers when an audience member falls in love with one of them – but c’est la vie. I should not overlook mentioning Nona Hendryx who performed five or so numbers as a soloist throughout the evening. She was marvellous with a powerful range and a very soulful blues and rock mixture that betrayed her roots. Last night one of those tunes was “Strange Fruit” which was more moving (and more frightening) than ever. 

 It is even more unfair when a competing performance of the well-known Bad Mehidau trio was performing at Massey Hall so, for the first time that I recall, Koerner Hall did not have a sold out house last night. Tis a pity since some others could have heard the best evening of the year.

True lovers, you see, are not exclusivists.