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Helen Sung is on a lifelong jazz journey 

After graduating in 1997 from the Thelonious Monk Institute at New England Conservatory, pianist Helen Sung has performed with greats like Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, and Clark Terry. She won the Kennedy Center's 2007 Mary Lou Williams Piano Competition and has played all over the world.

Sung, who brings her trio to The Penthouse on Saturday, recently answered some CITY questions by email. An edited version follows.

CITY: I've read that your parents, Chinese immigrants, wanted you to pursue classical piano rather than jazz. Why?

Helen Sung: They actually didn't want me to pursue a career in music at all. For years my dad would ask me when I was going to apply for medical school, which made me so mad. Now, years later, I can better appreciate their concern as practical and hard-working immigrants and parents who had more traditional professions.

My family didn't know any professional musicians and artists or folks who were "self-employed." They had no idea how I would make a living. They at least had some familiarity and experience with classical music, so you can imagine their reaction when I told them I was thinking about studying jazz right after finishing a Bachelor's degree in classical piano.

You attended Houston's famous High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. How inspiring was that?

When I attended HSPVA I was strictly a classical pianist — such a shame that I never had a single interaction with any jazzers my entire four years there and our classrooms were right across the hall. Some brilliant jazzers who were there at the time are Chris Dave, Jason Moran, and LaRon Land.

Probably the thing I appreciated most is that it provided a place where I could "geek out" with a community of like-minded students who were all passionate and excited about their art form.

You describe a pivotal moment in your bio, when you heard Harry Connick Jr. play solo piano. What was it that caused such a revelation?

There was a vivid freedom that I never personally encountered in classical music. There was a raw abandon, a piano sound that swung for the fences, an irresistible rhythmic energy (aka "swing"!). I heard and felt a joy that I wanted to know more about.

What were some highlights when you attended the Monk Institute?

The entire Monk Institute experience was a highlight. It was exactly what I needed at the time: two years to completely immerse myself in the music (I had some catching up to do) and to study with the masters who had a hand in creating this art form in real time. Truly priceless!

I was so new to jazz and really didn't know much, so I loved and appreciated every moment and experience, from having artistic director Ron Carter kick our behinds every other week; studying with brilliant pianists like Kenny Barron, Danilo Perez, and Stephen Drury; being a part of the New England Conservatory community; performing at the Kennedy Center; touring with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter ... truly an embarrassment of riches and probably enough inspiration to last a lifetime, and then some.

Over your career you've played in large and small groups, and solo. Do you have a preference?

I love it all — being onstage with empathic and brilliant fellow musicians is one of my greatest joys in life. I suppose solo piano is particularly inspiring because I find it the most terrifying (and therefore extremely motivating to go into the shed, ha ha!). Playing great solo piano is a sort of the Holy Grail for me — to be completely comfortable onstage by myself, playing song after song, is something I feel a bit closer to now — and still terrifying.

In terms of your heritage and parents, how did it feel to play in Taiwan in 2011?

They loved it! I have played there more regularly since then, and last October my parents were actually in Taiwan to hear me perform for the 2017 Taichung Jazz Festival. Taichung is the city they both grew up in, so it was a really special evening.

They are also glad my Mandarin is improving and I am, too. Getting the chance to play in Asia more has helped me reconnect with being Chinese. I'm gaining a greater understanding of my heritage and root culture, which is empowering and also ties together the many different threads of my life experience.

What is your approach to writing?

I try to write what is really from me, versus a derivative of something I like and admire. The great keyboardist, accordionist, and composer and arranger Gil Goldstein once said, "For us musical composers, we are always hearing things, but now and then there are seeds of musical ideas flowing by which are meant only for us. We have to pay attention and realize when one has arrived, and it is our responsibility to grab it and grow it into existence. If we don't it will pass on, remaining dormant and unrealized."

There is a lot of truth in that statement, so I always try to pay attention in my "inner ear," testing myself to see if what I'm writing is truly from that place.

How do you approach improvisation?

I think technical elements of improvisation — harmony, vocabulary, rhythm, groove, etc. — are most consciously in my head when I'm practicing. When actually improvising onstage, I'm more reacting and responding to my band-mates, aiming to be "in the moment" and present to the music happening right then. I want to be a vital and attentive part of the musical conversation.

Has there ever been a time on stage when things seemed so magical that it was beyond anything you'd experienced before?

Yes, there have been moments in places ranging from the smallest jazz club while playing an upright piano to a Steinway D on a grand concert hall stage when a sudden joy will wash over me or I'll be overwhelmed with a sense of being part of the continuum in this great music of jazz. How daunting and crazy incredible that is! And when I take risks and am able to reach a different place in the music — it makes all the hard work more than worth it.


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