The saying goes, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” For an artist, doing the same thing over and over again can be a formula for success. Fortunately for pianist/composer Helen Sung, talent is its own a formula and she put hers on full display in her Concord Records debut recording (her sixth overall), Anthem for a New Day.
Armed with a new found “this is who I am, take me or leave me” brand of confidence, Sung delivers a recording that is at least on par with her contemporaries’ best work. Suffice it to say Anthem for a New Day is also her own best work. Her playing epitomizes what’s beautiful about a female musician’s sound without coming across as too frilly or like she’s trying to hang with the boys: it’s thoughtful; it’s smart; it’s emotional, and it’s provocative.
Anthem for a New Day—which includes contributions from Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), Seamus Blake (saxophone), Obed Calvaire (drums), Reuben Rogers (bass), and Samuel Torres (percussion) along with special guest performances by Paquito D’Rivera (clarinet) and Regina Carter (violin)—explores jazz in its many forms. The disc opens with a funky contemporary piece that also serves as the theme song for the North Coast Brewing Company’s “Brother Thelonious” Belgian ale. Jensen and Blake set the tone and Sung lifts the track to a whole other level with a spirited solo that would surely have been Monk approved. Next up, D’Rivera joins Sung on the Chick Corea composition titled “Armando’s Rumba.” The piano and clarinet do the heavy lifting on this Latin jazz tune while Calvaire, Torres, and Sung add handclaps and foot stomps as percussive treatments. Sungs piano work dances while D’Rivera’s clarinet sings. The instruments complement each other nicely. Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing)” gets to benefit from Sung’s creativity and sense of humor when she marries her classical training with her jazz chops. Though the swing element was intentionally downsized, Sung’s reimagining of the classic composition demonstrates what’s possible when jazz is explored while also ensuring that the jazz element always remains present. The disc’s title track is a bold and adventurous offering that features Sung performing (for the first time on a recording) on Rhodes. Jensen, Blake, Calvaire, and Rogers provide very high-energy performances that seem to support or antagonize (depending on how you hear it), Sung’s spirited solos. There’s nothing Sung holds back in her playing here. There’s an awesome tension and release that goes from opening notes (up until 1:14) to Sung’s solo (3:32-4:05). It’s almost as if she’s saying “this is what people expect of me, but this is what I’m going to give.” Great work.
The disc is full of other great performances including Sung’s take on Monk’s “Epistrophy,” a solo performance of Stanley Cowell’s “Equipoise,” and a performance of “Never Let Me Go,” a lovely ballad with great bass work from Rogers. There were also great performances of Sung’s original work including “Hidden,” which features a beautiful contribution from Regina Carter, and the frenzied “Chaos Theory,” a track that is heavy on drums but seems to offer each musician a great opportunity to cut loose and have fun.
Sung has long been regarded as a favorite among musicians, but has largely been underappreciated by critics and fans. Anthem for a New Day should change all of that.
The recording will be released today, January 28, 2014. For more information on Helen Sung go to http://www.helensung.com.