Helen Sung just passed through Houston in March as part of the storied Mingus Big Band. And the jazz pianist and alumnus of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts has already set a return date to her hometown: She’ll play the Trinity Jazz Festival in Houston on Jan. 26, 2019.
Sung’s Trinity appearance here is tabbed as an album release event for “Sung With Words,” her seventh album and first in four years.
True to its title, “Sung With Words” is Sung’s first vocal album. It’s a collaboration with poet Dana Gioia, California’s State Poet Laureate, who published his first collection of poetry in 1986.
Sung won a “New Jazz Works” grant in 2014, which facilitated the collaboration. She met Gioia at a White House State Dinner, where he discussed his affinity for jazz with Sung.
“Dana has a fascinating story, both personally and professionally, and one of his many gifts is his ability to make poetry accessible and even enjoyable for the layperson, similar to how Wynton Marsalis does with jazz,” Sung said.
She brought together a top-shelf band for the album, including reedist John Ellis, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Reuben Rogers, percussionist Samuel Torres as well as drummer Kendrick Scott, who like Sung is an HSPVA alum. Sung brought in four vocalists to sing Gioia’s words: Jean Baylor, Carolyn Leonhart, Christie Dashiell, and Charenee Wade.
The album is the most recent point in an oddly plotted course for Sung. Though HSPVA’s jazz program is storied, she studied classical music while a teenager in Houston. At the university of Texas, she pivoted dramatically. There Sung fell into a jazz studies program and never looked back. She talked about her path in this 2014 story.
Sung’s musical research for “Sung With Words” extended well beyond the jazz vocal tradition. She cited several genre-blending crossover artists as being instrumental in the album’s development: Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, A Tribe Called Quest, Me’Shell Ndegeocello and Esperanza Spaulding.