Helen Sung

Sung With Words: A Collaboration With Dana Gioia
(Stricker Street)

Poetry is having a moment in the jazz world again. Matt Wilson took a whirl with Carl Sandburg and Luciana Souza delved into Leonard Cohen. True collaborations between poets and instrumentalists are more unusual, making pianist Helen Sung’s project with former California poet laureate Dana Gioia of particular interest.

The Gioia poems included are delightfully lusty and not a little nostalgic. He longs to meet for watery drinks at the old Hermosa Beach Lighthouse circa 1971 and feast on spicy food in a “dark little dive” on a summer night, and he kisses off a lover who begs for another chance.

Ironically, the album’s emotional high point is the wordless “Lament For Kalief Browder,” where John Ellis’ bass clarinet cries for the suicide of a Bronx man who falsely was imprisoned on Rikers Island. That leads to the smartest programming decision on the recording—diving headlong from the requiem into the hard-bop of “Into The Unknown.”

With four singers onboard, Sung has a range of tonality to work with, and the combinations of Christie Dashiell and Carolyn Leonhart on “Hot Summer Night” and Charenée Wade on “Mean What You Say” are especially invigorating. As musical as his voice is, the decision to include Gioia’s spoken-word intros is a bit odd, though. They seem as superfluous as wearing a belt with suspenders.