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Helen Sung

The Arts

Taking poetry and jazz to new places

Helen Sung brings her ‘Sung With Words’ project to VJC

Eugene Uman is executive artistic director of the Vermont Jazz Center. Tickets for Helen Sung’s “Sung With Words ”at the Vermont Jazz Center are $20 general admission, $15 for students with I.D. (contact VJC about educational discounts). Tickets for the Vermont Jazz Center are available at In the Moment in Brattleboro, or online at, and by email at Tickets can also be reserved by calling the Vermont Jazz Center ticket line, 802-254-9088, ext. 1. Handicapped access is available by calling the VJC at 802-254-9088.

BRATTLEBORO—The Vermont Jazz Center welcomes Helen Sung and celebrates her Chamber Music America-sponsored project, “Sung With Words” on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m.

The pianist/composer will present a new body of work that embodies the alliance of poetry and jazz and then takes it to new places. The performers in the octet are Helen Sung (piano and composition), Jason Palmer (trumpet), John Ellis (woodwinds), Christie Dashiell and Alina Engibaryan (Vocals), David Wong (bass), Kush Abadey (drums) and Samuel Torres (percussion).

“Sung with Words” is a collaboration between Sung and former California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia. Together they have crafted a synergistic repertoire that digs deep even while some of the material is playful and beckons the listeners to revisit their own jazz experiences in times gone by.

The depth of the work can be found in the seriousness of the compositions, the complexity of the arrangements and the multilayered meanings of the language. The playfulness can be discovered in some of the subject matter and the drama that unfolds in both the music and the narrative. The sum of the parts is a delightful journey of poetry and song woven into ingenious musical arrangements.

In listening to this material, we sense the mutual respect that is shared between the two creators. In an online promo video created by Sung, she speaks of how she initially felt intimidated by poetry until Gioia shared with her his view that “poetry is meant to be read out loud, that it’s musical.”

He encouraged her to “listen to the rhythm of the words, the sounds, and the meaning will come.”

’The young are on fire’

On first listen, Gioia’s texts are easily assimilated, they conjure up vivid imagery that transport the listeners to places that are real and could relate to jazz culture, as illustrated by this section from his poem “Let’s go Downtown”:

It’s a Hot Summer Night/Let’s not stay home and get in a fight/Let’s eat spicy food in a dark little dive/And let our bodies know we’re alive/Summer has come. The young are on fire/And every tattoo spells a word for desire/They’re strolling as naked as custom allows/They never say later. They only say now.

On the album, Gioia reads this poem in its entirety without accompaniment. His iteration is followed by the exciting percussion grooves of Colombian conguero Samuel Torres. Carmen Lundy then sings a melodic rendition of the poem over contrapuntal, funky horn lines.

In her arrangements, Sung demonstrates an uncanny ability to enhance the poetry by creating discernable forms that frame Gioia’s carefully chosen words rather than competing with them.

Thanks to a generous grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Foundation, Sung is able to travel with a fairly large band to promote this ambitious project.

A transformative project

She will bring an eight-piece group to the Vermont Jazz Center in order to re-create the material from her recently released recording, for which she has just finished a CD release tour which included performances in Denver, Santa Cruz, and New York City.

Instrumentalists performing in the front line include trumpeter Jason Palmer and saxophonist John Ellis. Two singers will be performing with Sung: Christie Dashiell and Alina Engibaryan. Joining Helen Sung in the rhythm section will be bassist David Wong, drummer Kush Abaday, and percussionist Samuel Torres.

In a recent article in Jazz Times magazine, Sung speaks about how this project has transformed her so that now she has become an advocate for both jazz and poetry. “Jazz is an art form where it’s so rich and so deep, so many people sacrificed so much to contribute and make it what it is today, and I think it’s the same for poetry.”

Sung invites us to join her to revel in this newfound love of poetry infused with her ingenious arrangements and stellar band.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #492 (Wednesday, January 9, 2019). This story appeared on page B1.

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