Houston native Helen Sung has released six previous albums as leader, and the pianist also has appeard as guest on releases by Terri Lyne Carrington, Wynton Marsalis, Clark Terry and Louie Bellson, among others. This, her seventh leader date, is an homage to, in her words, “… landmark women in jazz: Mary Lou Williams, Geri Allen, Marian McPartland, Carla Bley, and Toshiko Akiyoshi, true pioneers and giants all.”
The “plus” part of the album’s title Quartet+ means that there are actually two quartets involved. Her own (John Ellis on saxophones and flute, David Wong on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums) is joined by the superb Harlem Quartet (Ilmar Gavilan, first violin; Melissa White, second violin; Jaime Amador, viola; Felix Umansky, cello). The 12 tracks include five original compositions in addition to works by the five jazz women named above and a couple of snippets of Dr. Billy Taylor’s “A Grand Night for Swinging.” The string quartet’s involvement ranges from tasteful accents at the turnarounds to full-on chamber jazz arrangements. Either way, it’s stirring.
The opener “Feed The Fire” by Geri Allen sets the place ablaze, beginning with a series of upward reaching string arpeggios that echo Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire,” then takes flight into a fleetfooted hard bop quartet piece that totally shows off Sung’s sterling technique and harmonic sense. It’s a real meet the band introduction, and there’s more where that came from. Toshiko Akiyoshi’s “Long Yellow Road” also plays with the piano-strings intro into a straight ahead tune with strings at the turns.
The strings and Ellis’s flute add heart-melting lushness at key points of Williams’s “Mary’s Waltz,” and Karla Bley’s “Wrong Key Donkey is all pizzicato strings and staccato piano, soaring violin and viola runs, and crackly percussion, all of which very much catches Bley’s whimsical compositional spirit. And anyone who ever enjoyed Marian McPartland’s long-running “Piano Jazz” show on public radio will get a kick out of “Melancholy Mood/Kaleidoscope,” a medley/mashup of two McPartland pieces, one featuring the string quartet prominently, the other a spirited reworking of the show’s theme music.
Sung places three of her own pieces centrally. “Coquette,” inspired by one of German composer Clara Schumann’s “Romance” pieces, finds the string quartet’s four part counterpoint introducing a flirty Latin jazz piece where Sung get to show off her melodic montuno. It’s folowed by the two-movement “Temporality,” a work commissioned by the Jazz Coalition, written during and reflecting first New York’s and then the world’s experience during the pandemic year of 2020. Both are episodic works totalling nearly 16 minutes. Her “Elegy For The City” opens with a melodic classical solo piano section, followed by a melancholy exploration of the same theme with Ellis on flute. Gradually the mix of the piece picks up more and more jazz infuences until it lapses into a Latinesque whirlwind for the final couple of minutes, with a brief melancholy string coda. “Time Loops” leaps and swoops through manic jazz moods, giving everyone in Sung’s quartet a chance to show off their chops, and integrates the strings subtly throughout.
“The way I experienced time became very elastic during the pandemic,” Sung says. “Each day felt interminably long, one blurring into the next, and then suddenly an entire month had passed! ‘Time Loops’ is about that, while ‘Elegy for the City’ is my lament for the terrible human loss suffered by New York and other cities.”
Also of note is the somber “Lament for Kalief Browder,” with one particularly moving section where Ellis’s keening soprano sax fronts the double quartet in this lamentation for a Bronx teenager who committed suicide after a three-year imprisonment without trial at Rikers Island. It appeared previously on Sung’s album Sung With Words.
Jazz violin master Regina Carter co-produced with Sung and served as something of a muse for the project. Sung herself studied classical violin as an undergrad before being swayed by jazz, and says, “When I first heard Regina Carter she was playing with Kenny Barron at the Blue Note, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s how I would want to play jazz violin.’ When I heard the Harlem Quartet I had that same feeling.”
Quartet+ is just a quality project all around. You’ll seldom hear jazz and classical idioms integrated so seamlessly and organically. What a joy.