Helen Sung Brings Her Picturesque Mix of Poetry and Jazz Back to Curry Hill with Cecile McLorin Salvant on the Mic
The confluence of music and poetry goes back for millennia in cultures around the world, but it’s less common here. In American jazz, spoken word is typically associated with improvisation, which makes the new album Helen Sung with Words – a collaboration with poet Dana Gioia – a rarity. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of blazing jams on the album, streaming at Spotify. It’s a latin jazz song cycle incorporating the poet reading several of his playfully aphoristic rhymes. Sung debuted the project memorably at the Jazz Standard last year; she’s bringing it back there for a show on Dec 13 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30; Sung is also bringing along Cecile McLorin Salvant as a special guest on vocals, which makes sense since Sung plays piano in Salvant’s majestic, menacing Ogresse big band tour de force. And since Salvant will be in the house, the show will probably sell out, so reserving now would be a good idea.
Gioia’s wistful, wry memory of youthful jazz clubbing opens the album’s first track, animated counterpoint between John Ellis’ tenor sax and Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet setting the stage for a scampering swing anchored by Sung’s spacious, incisive attack over Reuben Rogers’ bass and Kendrick Scott’s drums. Ellis, Jensen and then the bandleader follow in turn, climbing the ladder and fueling the blaze.
Jean Baylor sings the bolero-tinged ballad The Stars on 2nd Avenue with an airy, regretful, distantly Sarah Vaughan-ish delivery, lowlit by Sung’s low-key, wee-hours piano and Samuel Torres’ tersely propulsive congas. “Let’s live in the flesh and not in the screen,” Gioia intones as Torres’ flurries kick off Hot Summer Night, Christie Dashiell and Carolyn Leonhart trading off energetically, the rest of the band following suit over a straight-ahead hard-funk beat.
The band shift subtly between swing and clave as Baylor builds a knowing bluesiness in Pity the Beautiful, Sung’s move from loungey comfort to plaintiveness mirroring Gioia’s contemplation of how good looks will only get you so far. Too Bad, a catchy salsa-jazz kiss-off number, features Dashilell and Leonhart out front again along with a triumphantly flurrying Jensen solo, Sung prancing and scurrying up to a horn-driven crescendo.
The album’s strongest track is Lament for Kalief Browder, who killed himself after being thrown into solitary confinement on Rikers Island for two years as an adolescent. Ellis’ muted bass clarinet over airy vocalese and tiptoeing bass introduces a weary, brooding theme reflecting the hopelessness of prison life; from there, the band take it further into the blues before a grim return, Rogers bowing somberly in unison with Ellis.
They pick up the pace again with the catchy syncopation of Into the Unknown, Ellis’ tenor dancing between the raindrops, Sung offering momentary solo pensiveness before leaping back in alongside bright horn harmonies. Her enigmatically chiming piano interchanges with Rogers’ flitting figures and Scott’s mistiness throughout Touch; it brings to mind the work of Spanish composer Federico Mompou.
In the Shadowland has catchy, moody tango inflections; Ellis’ soprano solo may be the album’s most lyrical moment. Dashiell and Leonhart bring understated exasperation to the punchy final track. Mean What You Say. One can only imagine what kind of magic Salvant will bring to this stuff live.