When New York jazz pianist Helen Sung met poet Dana Gioia at a White House state dinner in 2007, the two quickly struck up a conversation. Before long, she felt compelled to make a confession to him: Despite a quality education from Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she felt she’d received a lackluster education in English lit—and even worse, she didn’t read poetry.
“I told him I didn’t enjoy the experience, and didn’t like feeling unsure of meaning,” says Sung, who brings her Sung With Words project to Kuumbwa on Thursday. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about literal meaning. Poetry is supposed to be experienced out loud, like music, and the meaning will come at you sideways.’”
Gratified by the insight and impressed that he was acquainted with her two favorite science fiction writers, Ray Bradbury and Orson Scott Card, Sung and Gioia stayed in touch. As their friendship blossomed, so did Sung’s career. She’s become one of jazz’s most visible and versatile pianists, with a series of critically hailed albums under her own name and a regular gig with the Mingus Big Band. In October, she performed at the SFJAZZ Center as part of an all-star program celebrating Thelonious Monk’s 101st birthday, and last month she was at the piano for the premiere of “Ogresse,” an ambitious new work by Grammy Award-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant.
With the support of a Chamber Music America grant in 2014, the creative partnership between Sung and Gioia took root, then fully blossomed with Sung With Words, released in September. The collaboration album features her settings for his verse. Their friendship and conversations about words and music gave Sung the space to ease into songwriting.
“I noticed that when I’d imagine a melody for a line of poetry it would make the poem come alive with meaning,” she says. “I started thinking, ‘Can I make this into a song?’ Dana was really gracious. He gave me opportunities to perform my early attempts setting his poems. I got to know his family. Eventually, he said we should write some songs together.”
What’s most striking about Sung With Words is that Gioia’s lines come off as lyrics rather than poetry shoehorned into an uncomfortable space. And Sung’s music is effervescently accessible, with all of the expressiveness of jazz and the immediacy of pop.
“I listened to a lot of Stevie [Wonder], Earth, Wind and Fire, and Michael Jackson—songs that had the impact that I wanted, songs that were fun, but still had depth,” Sung says. “I didn’t have a method. I let each song direct me. Sometimes that took forever, and sometimes I’d start panicking. I was so grateful when the inspiration came.”
While the album features a sextet, she pared the ensemble down for the road. Sung will be performing around the Western U.S. with a stellar band featuring vocalist Christie Dashiell, saxophonist John Ellis, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Rudy Royston (a brilliant accompanist who returns to Kuumbwa on Jan. 25 with his frequent employer Bill Frisell). The focus will be on material from Sung With Words.
The only player carrying over from the recording is Ellis, a gifted multi-instrumentalist on tenor and soprano sax and bass clarinet. “John has been on most of my gigs for the past few years,” Sung says. “He’s such a fabulous artist.”
For the album, she recruited a powerhouse lineup of vocalists, including Jean Baylor, Charenee Wade and Carolyn Leonhart. But it’s Christie Dashiell, a rising star from Washington D.C., who’s featured on the most tracks, and she’s been the mainstay on the road. Sung’s singers ended up forming something of a mutual admiration society, with Baylor describing Dashiell’s voice as “dark chocolate mocha with whipped cream,” Sung says.
Nice turn of phrase! Sung might have found a new songwriting partner.
Helen Sung performs at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 6, at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $31.50/adv, $36.75/door. 427-2227.