Helen Sung’s ‘Quartet+’ Is An Enjoyable Collection Of Originals, Covers

Courtesy: Sunnyside Records

Ever since it reached America’s shores in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused no end of trouble for the nation.  Even today it continues causing that trouble in all sorts of ways.  One look through most major news networks proves that true.  For all of the problems that this ongoing pandemic has caused America, it has also brought about at least one positive.  That positive is the creation of so much new music that might not have otherwise been crafted.  Pianist/composer Helen Sung’s forthcoming album, Quartet+ is just some of the music that has been created as a result of the pandemic.  Scheduled for release Friday through Sunnyside Records, the 13-song record is a presentation that any jazz fan will find enjoyable.  That is proven through its originals and covers.  Not the least notable of the originals is ‘Coquette,’ which comes early in the album’s 65-minute run time.  It will be discussed shortly.  ‘Wrong Key Donkey,’ one of the album’s late entries, is a prime example of what makes the covers stand out.  It will be discussed a little later.  ‘Sungbird,’ is another unique addition to the album and will also be examined later.  Each song noted does its own part to make this album worth hearing.  When they are considered along with the rest of the album’s mix of originals and covers, the whole becomes an overall successful new offering from Sung.

Helen Sung’s forthcoming album, Quartet+  is a successful new offering from the veteran pianist/composer, who also has some classical training on violin.  That classical training is put on full display in one of the album’s five total originals in the form of ‘Coquette.’  Sadly, no information was provided about the composition (or any of the album’s compositions) in the record’s liner notes.  It feels like beating a dead horse at this point, so looking beyond that, the press release announcing the album’s release notes of the song, it was inspired by German composer Clara Schumann’s “Romance” pieces.  Schumann was the wife of equally famed composer Robert Schumann, and is one of many female composers to whom Sung pays tribute in this record.  The song opens with a very classically-tinged approach, what sounds like a chamber quartet.  The noted romantic influence is audible through the flowing but energetic approach to the opus.  It is such an enjoyable, relaxing intro to the song, which eventually transitions smoothly to a more Vince Guaraldi-style work complete with flute, piano, and subtle drums.  The string arrangement that opens the song does not go away here, either.  It continues on, serving just as enjoyable in a supporting role.  The juxtaposition of that classical leaning to the more modern jazz style works so well throughout the six-minute-plus opus.  Bassist David Wong’s solo alongside drummer Kendrick Scott adds its own unique, enjoyable touch to the whole, too.  The whole makes this composition overall a wonderful bridge between the past and present, showing that while classical and jazz are two genres unique of one another, they can still work together to make something truly special and enjoyable.  It is just one of the songs that works to show what makes Quartet+ successful.  Sung and her fellow musicians’ take on composer Carla Bley’s ‘Wrong Key Donkey’ (say that title without smiling and laughing – it sounds like wronkey donkey) is another welcome addition to the record.

Sung and company’s take of ‘Wrong Key Donkey’ stays mostly true to its source material.  What stands out most here is that instead of a saxophone line opening the song, as in the original, Sung and company use a string arrangement in its place.  That approach gives the song a unique touch while still staying true to the original.  Even more interesting is the occasional classical flare tied in to the whole.  Now there are some sax flourishes incorporated into the original and a side-by-side comparison shows maybe that is what the strings are echoing here, but even with that in mind, it is still a unique way to approach that subtle aspect.  What’s more it once again brings Sung’s classical training into play alongside the almost free jazz style sound and approach taken to the song.  That and so much more that takes place throughout the song makes this song so unique and interesting, especially considering that many audiences may not even have known the name of Carla Bley prior to hearing this song.  To that end, it is a great way to introduce those audiences to someone about whom they otherwise might not have known. Keeping all of this in mind, Sung and company’s faithful but still unique approach to this song is a wonderful tribute to Bley’s original work and another example of how much the album has to offer.  It is just one more of the many songs that serve that purpose, too.  ‘Sungbird,’ which previously appeared on one of Sung’s existing albums has been resurrected and re-worked for this album and also shows how much the album has to offer. 

‘Sungbird’ was originally featured in Sung’s 2007 album, Sungbird (After Albeniz).  This rendition of the song, another of Sung’s originals, stays true to its own source material replcing the soprano sax that opened the original this time with a ciolin line that swings with just as much Latin influence as the original.  The energy and style presented through the bass line and piano here adds even more to that Latin-tinged approach.  The way that Sung’s fingers glide over the keys here shows so much dynamic control.  That control alongside the energy and the juxtaposition of that to her fellow performers’ work makes the arrangement in whole fully immersive.  It really conjures, in its own way, thoughts of warm nights in Havana ages ago.  To that end, it really presents its own romanticism in terms of musical approach.  At the same time it all feels so natural, unlike so many songs from other Latin jazz artists and artists who create and cover Latin jazz.  It makes the song that much more engaging and entertaining.  When this work and the others examined here are considered along with the rest of the album’s works, that collective makes Quartet+ one more of this year’s top new jazz albums.

Helen Sung’s forthcoming latest album, Quartet+ is a work that will appeal equally to her established audiences and those who are less familiar with her and her work.  That is shown throughout the record in its originals and covers.  The unique approaches taken to each is exhibited clearly through the examinations of the songs shown here.  When those songs are considered along with the rest of the album’s works, the whole puts the album among the best of this year’s new jazz offerings.

Quartet+ is scheduled for release Friday through Sunnyside Records.  More information on the album is available along with all of her latest news at:

Website: https://www.helensung.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HelenSungMusic

Twitter: https://twitter.com/helensung    

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