Helen Sung To Perform At Jus’ Jazz
American jazz pianist returns to perform at the three-day jazz festival’s Mumbai edition
When jazz pianist Helen Sung first visited India in 1996, it was as part of a student’s group. The group of seven students from the first batch of Thelonious Monk Institute in Boston was accompanying jazz greats like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. “It was amazing, I took so many pictures. It was also Herbie’s first visit to India, so it was great just standing there and watching all these people going nuts. I remember we were on a four city tour of Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and Bombay,” she recalls. A lot may have changed since, including the names of the cities. Sung, now on her third visit to India, is no longer a young apprentice but leads her own quartet comprising bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Lewis Nash and saxophonist Seamus Blake.
This week, Sung will perform at Jus’ Jazz, a two-city fest which will also see jazz veterans such as Russell Malone, Igor Butman and Diane Witherspoon. A trained classical pianist, Sung took to jazz by accident. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor. So when I told them I wanted to study jazz, they were like what!,” says Sung, who got completely hooked to jazz after attending a Harry Connick Jr concert. “I had no idea who he was. He was breaking all the rules I had been told to stick by. He was banging on the keys, there was disregard for legato or other techniques that I had learnt. He was just going for it and it sounded wonderful. It was almost like I had to unlearn everything,” she adds. It was when listening to Tommy Flanagan’s swinging masterpiece “Confirmation” that Sung knew that she had found her calling.
Currently a professor at Berklee College of Music, Sung admits that it was difficult breaking free from the structure form and technique of classical music to follow jazz. “It was mindboggling,” she says, “Jazz was a totally different mindset. In classical music you do not step on stage until you have perfected everything, whereas in jazz you perfect it onstage.”
Sung has previously performed with some of the well-known names in the jazz circuit including swing trumpeter Clark Terry, bebop pianist Barry Harris, trombonists Slide Hampton and Steve Turre and many others. Topping her wishlist of Indian collaborators are Zakir Hussain and Anoushka Shankar. “Fusion is not a dirty word. I have watch these two play artists play and their finesse shows they are on top of their game,” she says.
For now, the New York-based pianist is working on her fourth album, which she hopes to ready by December. Sung promises that the Jus’ Jazz audience will hear some of her new material at the upcoming concert.