The intimacy of Hatch Hall was perfectly suited to the highly personal set Helen Sung played Friday night. Between tunes, she told the audience about her musical journey, starting with her upbringing in Texas with a strict Russian piano teacher who told her classical music was the only music worth listening to and playing. Once she discovered jazz, her studies continued at the Thelonious Monk Institute in Boston.
Her classical background was apparent in her flawless technique, but so was her ability to swing and deal with the intricacy of a Monk tune. She played a medley of them, starting with "Eronel," moving on to "Light Blue," and ending with "In Walked Bud." If you think of yourself as a jazz aficionado but you only recognized "In Walked Bud," that gives you a sense of how unpredictable Sung's song choices were. She also performed "Armando's Rhumba" by Chick Corea, "Equipoise" by Stanley Cowell, and her own heart-felt tune "Hope Springs Eternally."
Helen Sung plays with her quartet on Saturday night, 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., at Montage Music Hall.
Over at the Little Theatre, Ben Monder sat with an electric guitar balanced over his knee in the manner of a classical guitarist, and played a series of original tunes all of which involved finger-picked chords, up and down the fret-board, with the occasional melody breaking through. But these were not the chords you learned at guitar lessons. They were a unique variety that hovered on the edge of harmony and dissonance, often slipping over both sides.
Not everyone appreciated Monder's chord-centered style and a significant portion of the crowd left as the show progressed. Those who stayed until the end witnessed a sharp left turn on the last tune, which was filled with electronic distortion and a palette of echoes and other effects.
My last stop was Christ Church where Matthew Halsall and The Gondwana Orchestra played a wonderful set. Halsall's group features a fairly typical line-up -- piano, saxophone, trumpet, bass, drums -- until you get to the harp. It was the first harp I've seen at the festival in 15 years, and Rachael Gladwin played the first (beautiful) harp solos I've heard there.
Halsall, a fine trumpeter, is from Manchester, England, but his music came from all directions. Some of the tunes evoked Eastern Indian music and one composition was referred to as a Japanese ballad. Curiously Halsall and the equally talented Jordan Smart, the saxophonist, never played together; it was always one or the other. Taz Modi, the pianist, was superb, as were the bassist and drummer. Christ Church is a tough room for a large band, but this group's sound was perfectly balanced.
On the last night of the festival, I'll start at Kilbourn Hall with the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience. Then I'll head over to Hatch Hall to hear pianist Brian Dickinson, and I'll conclude the festival with hometown pianist Laura Dubin at Xerox Auditorium.