Vermont Jazz Center Presents: Helen Sung’s “Sung With Words”

Helen Sung to Perform her Commission “Sung With Words,” a jazz and poetry project at the Vermont Jazz Center on Saturday, January 19th at 8:00 PM

Helen Sung presents “Sung With Words,” a project sponsored by Chamber Music America

The Vermont Jazz Center welcomes Helen Sung and celebrates her Chamber Music America sponsored project, “Sung With Words” on Saturday, January 19th at 8:00 PM at the Vermont Jazz Center.  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), Carolyn Leonhart and Alina Engibaryan (Vocals), David Wong (bass), Kush Abadey (drums) and Felipe Fournier (percussion).

“Sung with Words” is a collaboration between Sung and California Poet Laureate (December 2015-Ocotober 2018) 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.” 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. She will be bringing an 8-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. Palmer is a VJC Summer Faculty member who has appeared or recorded with Roy Haynes, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Smith, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ravi Coltrane, Mark Turner, Jeff Ballard, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Common, Roy Hargrove, Lewis Nash, and more. Palmer received the 2014 French American Cultural Exchange Jazz Fellowship and was named a 2011 Fellow in Music Composition by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He took First Place in the 2009 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition.  The June 2007 issue of Downbeat Magazine cited him as one of the “Top 25 trumpeters of the Future.” In addition to performing on over forty albums as a sideman, Palmer has recorded eight albums under his own name and is currently a Steeplechase Records Recording artist. Three of his recordings have received four stars or better in Downbeat Magazine’s reviews. Saxophonist John Ellis has worked with John Patitucci, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Miguel Zenón, Darcy James Argue, Charlie Hunter, and pop icon Sting. His discography lists more than 100 album credits as a sideman, with more than a dozen released in 2014 alone, including acclaimed albums by Zenón, drummer Otis Brown III, pianists Helen Sung and Edward Simon, and blues/gospel/soul trio The Holmes Brothers. Ellis has released nine albums as a leader, three of those featuring his urban carnival band Double-Wide. He was the second place winner of the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition in 2002.

Two singers will be performing with Sung:  Carolyn Leonhart and Alina Engibaryan.  Leonhard has recorded with Sung and has sung with Steely Dan, Jay Leonhard (her father), and many others.  Also on vocals will be Alina Engibaryan, who is originally from Russia and has been called “one in a million” by Al Jarreau.  In 2015, Engibaryan won the Shure Montreux Jazz Voice Competition and was a finalist in the Prinses Christina Jazz Concours and the Dutch Vocal Competition. Engibaryan has three recordings as a leader, including We Are with Chris Potter, Michael League and Taylor Eigsti.

Joining Helen Sung in the rhythm section will be bassist David Wong, drummer Kush Abaday and percussionist Felipe Fournier. Wong is a first call NYC-based musician who graduated from Julliard in classical bass. He has recorded with Bebo Valdes, Aaron Diehl, Russell Malone, Dick Oats, Sachal Vasandani, Benny Green, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Heath, Wycliffe Gordon, Grant Stewart, Jeb Patton, Walt Weiskopf and the Village Vanguard Orchestra. Drummer Kush Abaday is a first call musician based in Brooklyn who has been performing and recording with Chico Freeman, Jimmy Greene’s ensemble, Melisa Aldana, John Ellis, Shai Maestro, Gilad Hekselman, David Weiss, Myron Waldon, Ben Wendel, Aaron Parks, Josh Evans, Alex Claffy, Rashaan Carter and many others. The percussionist is Latin Grammy winner Felipe Fournier.

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.

The Vermont Jazz Center is honored to present Helen Sung with Words. The event will take place on Saturday, January 19th at 8:00 PM. This concert will likely sell out, so be sure to purchase tickets in advance. The VJC is grateful for this concert’s sponsors: Dave Ellis and Anne Greenewalt of Ellis Music, Mark Anagnostopulos and Janet Zinter, Mary Ellen Copeland and Ed Anthes, and Cohen and Rice Law. The VJC is also thankful for the ongoing support of Holiday Inn Express Suites of Brattleboro. VJC publicity is underwritten by the Brattleboro Reformer, WVPR, WVEW and WFCR.

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); 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.








Press Release – Please give author’s credit to Eugene Uman, Vermont Jazz Center, 802 254 9088,


Helen Sung to Perform her Commission “Sung With Words,” a jazz and poetry project at the Vermont Jazz Center on Saturday, January 19th at 8:00 PM


Short Summary

Who: Helen Sung (piano and composition), Jason Palmer (trumpet), John Ellis (woodwinds), Carolyn Leonhart and Alina Engibaryan (Vocals), David Wong (bass), Kush Abadey (drums) and Felipe Fournier (percussion).

What: The poetry of Dana Gioia set to original jazz arrangements

When: Saturday, January 19th, 2019 at 8:00 PM

Where: The Vermont Jazz Center, 72 Cotton Mill Hill, #222, Brattleboro, VT 05301

Tickets available:  online at, by email at, by phone 802 254 9088, in person at In The Moment, Main St., Brattleboro, VT.

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