XRIJF Day 9 – Helen Sung Quartet
After Friday’s performance by Helen Sung at Hatch Hall, I wanted more. An emotional player, Sung in her first concert played jazz, but through the lens of classical. I was curious to see how she would adapt to playing with a quartet at Montage Music Hall at 6pm. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Throughout her first set, Sung discussed at length her love and admiration of Thelonius Monk and his music, becoming a Monk historian and an expert interpreter of his work. During her Hatch set she played some Monk tunes, but with fewer of the quirky dissonances and bebop sound of Monk. During this set however, Sung and her quartet, comprised of alto sax player Jaleel Shaw, SF Jaz Collective bassist Matt Penman (who caught a red eye to play with her last night), and bandleader drummer Kendrick Scott of the group Oracle, unleashed, rather, unleashed, an hour of hard bop. Sung wasn’t the smooth and thoughtful captain of the Classical Ship, but the conductor of the Monk Train heading to Bopland.
As humble as ever in her thanks of the Festival and the listeners (she actually said Rochester topped out Detroit as the best fans), Sung’s emotional and blistering playing fueled the fire of the group. They kicked it off with a “bopified” version of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” starting with a groovy, a little blue, and Monkish open on the piano. Done in classic, and loud, hard bop, the group was just warming up.
Next sung introduced the band, and told a brief story about gigs coming from weird places, and how she was asked to write a song for a beer, “Brother Thelonius.” The tune, which I’m sure shared the name of the beer, combined the grooves and riffs of bebop with some bass walking and drum sawing away on swing cymbals, and continued the high energy. Shaw had an exceptionally long solo, channeling his inner Charlie Parker, and Penman had a cool solo that faded out with the piece.
Sung and then turned their attention to some of Sung’s newer originals. The next two, called “Lament for Khalif Brown,” and “In the Shadowland,” we’re inspired by Sung’s time with the Mingus Band, in which she developed an appreciate for Mingus’s ability to write music that was with the times. She wrote these pieces addressing our country’s issue with incarceration, and Khalif Brown’s story. Both pieces shared similar modal language, the latter I believe was in A, which is a nightmare on alto sax, which would play that in F#, and combined hard bop, rock-themed sections, and emotional repeating melodic lines.
“Armando’s Rhumb” by Chick Corea was next, done as a duet between Sung and Penan. It was similar to her solo arrangement, though much better as a duet. Penman was clearly sight reading; you couldn’t hear it in his playing, but his face screamed: “My brain is working very hard.” He eventually found his stride, and gave a Sung big, cheeky grin. The two loosened up, and played an excellent version, combining Corea’s cerebral ideas with bop and some Latin groove. Penman’s solo was exceptional, using grooves and licks with bebop lines and melodies.
Finally, in what was the fastest hour of the XRIJF, the group closed with a piece called “Convergence,” which Sung commented was appropriate given the mix of people and culture at this festival. Ending it with how they started, this hard bop tune had scorching solos, particularly from Scott who took a mostly accompanied solo, and developed it from a quiet groove to a cooker, eliciting cheers from the audience.
Sung was a rousing success in both sets, and it was great to see her in two settings.