Listening to the pianist Helen Sung perform her most recent album, “Sung with Words,” at the Jazz Standard in New York in late 2018, was enough to make winter seem less like a fact of life and more like a just-ended bad dream. “Let’s go downtown,” the Grammy-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant warbled. “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.” The Flatiron District, like much of Manhattan, was strung with garlands and Christmas lights and astir with seasonal cheer. The rain was falling lightly and looked delicate, like snow. Inside, Jazz Standard patrons were eating brisket and ribs and drinking wine, as if in a collective effort to transmute December into July—Ms. Sung finished the job.
“Sung with Words” resulted from a fortuitous meeting at the White House in 2007. Ms. Sung was taping for the PBS program “In Performance at the White House.” At the State Dinner held beforehand, she was seated beside Dana Gioia, who is now the poet laureate of California. Sometime after the dinner, Ms. Sung slipped him a CD, and he gave her some poetry.
Performing makes me feel vividly alive.
“I admitted to him that I hadn’t read much poetry since high school, and honestly didn’t enjoy it much, as I didn’t like feeling unsure of meaning,” says Ms. Sung. “He said something that helped me overcome this, saying poetry is a temporal art like music, meant to be experienced out loud—listened to or read aloud.”
It turned out that Ms. Sung liked poetry much better when she read it out loud because it helped her imagine a melody. And Mr. Gioia’s work is particularly musical—it is part of the tradition of New Formalism, the 21st-century movement toward rhyme and meter, and away from free verse.
As a result of her newfound appreciation for poetry, Ms. Sung set about working on a new project, incorporating Mr. Gioia’s work into hers. Thus was born “Sung with Words,” a jaunty piano album dappled with Mr. Gioia’s playful, running-through-the-sprinklers Americana.
At the Jazz Standard, with Samuel Torres on percussion, it felt like we were going over a waterfall, or frying something in a pan just to hear it sizzle. Meanwhile, the saxophone and trumpet went up and down together, two high schoolers jumping hurdles at track-and-field practice.
Ms. Sung’s compositions are by turns lively and melancholic. “Hot Summer Night,” “Too Bad” and “Convergence” are New York at peak humidity—frantic, squealing, warm (as if from a subway-grate breeze). But sometimes the cold creeps in. Mr. Gioia’s “The Stars on Second Avenue” is a gelid, scintillating lament: “The shimmer is just neon/ Reflected in the rain/ From the little corner deli/ Where memory comes with pain.”
Mr. Gioia also brings something of an East-West back-and-forth to the album. “Pity the Beautiful” upbraids the image consciousness he says is native to Los Angeles: the sheen of the exterior, the polished surface. But to me, the song seems to capture New York, too, as I was later reminded when I cut across the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 44th Street, where the LED display panels of Times Square tap danced across my retinas.
“I’ve found playing jazz piano to be a very different experience than classical piano, which is mainly a solitary experience,” says Ms. Sung. When she transitioned from classical musician to jazz artist, she had to learn to play with others “in the moment” and to savor the seeming randomness—the mystery—of creation.
Ms. Sung, who has gone on retreats at the Jesuit Retreat House in Los Altos, Calif., sees her work as having spiritual significance. (This is a perspective Mr. Gioia, who has written at length about art and the “Catholic literary imagination,” shares.) Even in adolescence, Ms. Sung had a sense of music’s sublimity. “I remember thinking at some point between middle school and high school that music was something I would never be bored with,” she said, “something I would never get to the bottom of—so why not go for it and see what happens?”
“Performing makes me feel vividly alive. It makes me feel connected—connected to God, to the musicians I’m playing with, to the listeners, to the magic and beauty of music and art.”