Live review | The Helen Sung Quartet’s integrative approach to ensemble innovation

Helen Sung plays with John Ellis, center, and Ben Williams. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

by David Reed
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Helen Sung Quartet
Turkish Ambassador’s Residence
Tuesday, Apr. 12, 2011

The Helen Sung Quartet played a house concert on Apr. 12 – but the house was the residence of Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan. Can real, down-to-earth jazz be produced in such elegant surroundings? The answer that came through was a resounding yes.

Pianist Helen Sung has a sterling resume: classical training, then training at the Thelonious Monk Institute, winner of the Mary Lou Williams Piano Competition and booked for this gig by Jazz at Lincoln Center. But her plethora of training and success in the jazz establishment did not lead to over-rehearsed, overly-academic music. Sure, Sung is excellent technically – smooth and precise are the words that kept springing to mind – but she also drove hard to exciting climaxes, especially on her rhythmically thriving ode to New York City, “Going Express.”

Best of all, Sung seems to be a stimulating bandleader. The whole set was marked by impressive interplay among the quartet; not that they were unusually tight, but they were successfully melding their performances in the moment. Sung’s composition “Hidden” showcased skillful saxman John Ellis, not only in his solo but also in a soulful duet with Sung. On Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” the saxophone turned admirably bluesy, but the highlight was the conversation between Sung’s piano and D.C. native Ben Williams on bass. Williams was unobtrusively excellent throughout the evening, supporting the group with clear, engaging countermelodies. And, not to slight Kendrick Scott’s impressive drum solos, but he too shone best in ensemble – particularly in “Hope Springs Eternally,” not only setting the beat, but also the mood.

The set ended with “Going Express,” the title track from Sung’s latest album. A great finale, it propelled forward with the hottest sax of the evening, and piano fireworks. I imagine this is what the midnight set sounded like at a Harlem club in 1962.

The music room at the Turkish Ambassador's Residence, before the musicians and audience arrived. Carlyle V. Smith/CapitalBop

But this wasn’t Monk at Minton’s – it was the second installment of the Turkish Embassy’s Ertegün Jazz Series, at the ornate Turkish residency. The series consists of six concerts hosted by the embassy, and underwritten by Boeing. The series commemorates the late Ahmet Ertegün, son of Turkey’s second ambassador to the U.S. and founder of Atlantic Records. His memoir recounts that in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, Ertegün and his brother Nesuhi were fans of Washington’s jazz scene, and even promoted some concerts locally. They took to inviting jazz greats who were appearing in Washington to come to their home – the Ambassador’s residence – for Sunday lunch, followed by a jam session.

The Ertegüns scandalized segregated Washington, and showed moral courage, by bringing Black and white musicians in the front door to eat and jam together in the ambassador’s residence, where diplomatic privilege protected them.

The Turkish Embassy is celebrating this heritage by hosting some of today’s notable jazz artists. The first concert in this series was by the Orrin Evans Trio; the remaining four shows haven’t yet been announced. The embassy is also showing great hospitality: Ambassador Tan, his wife and the embassy staff were gracious and mingly, not to mention serving drinks before the music and Turkish delicacies after.

Now the bad news – the concerts are by invitation only. Based on who I ran into, it helps to be Turkish, or Boeing, or a member of Congress. But the embassy distributes a handful of tickets to the public before each concert via a contest on its Facebook page. We can hope that as the series continues, there will be room for more jazz fans without connections to attend.

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