Sumi Tonooka – Long Ago Today
It seems so long ago today since I first encountered Sumi Tonooka and became aware of her marvelous musicianship. It was in fact nearly thirty years ago that I initially heard her playing in Philly Joe Jones’ quartet and was impressed by the then nineteen year old pianist’s flawless technique, but it wasn’t until later, upon hearing her fronting her own group, that the true depth of her burgeoning ability as a bandleader and composer became apparent. In the three decades since, it has been a distinct pleasure to hear her more than live up to the promise of her early years and blossom into one of the most distinctively talented musicians of her generation.
On Long Ago Today, her fifth date as a leader, Sumi shows just how much her talent has grown in the years since she first began making a name for herself in her native Philadelphia. Her formidable technical abilities, forged through years of study with some of the music’s finest teachers, including Madame Margaret Chaloff and Mary Lou Williams, have increased to the level of genuine virtuosity, which she displays judiciously throughout the date. More importantly, her compositional skills have also developed and the nine satisfying originals here, each one with its own story to tell, reveal her to be one of finest creators of memorable melodies in jazz today.
Sumi notes that her tunes “are not very typical harmonically,” which is one of the main reasons the master musician Rufus Reid has been her bassist of choice for all of her recordings as a leader. “He has a very open approach in dealing with the changes,” she says. “It just works when we play together. There’s this chemistry. He has always had a sound but now it’s even bigger and better. Rufus is truly creative and spontaneous. He has a great sense of humor that comes out in his playing and great love for the music. And like all great musicians he is a great listener and really supports the music.”
Filling out the trio is Bob Braye, a veteran drummer who, despite an impressive resume including stints with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Rouse, Jackie McLean, Pharoah Sanders, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Woody Shaw, Abbey Lincoln, Gloria Lynn, Nancy Wilson, Larry Gales, Horace Tapscott and many more, remains relatively unknown. Sumi met Bob through her friend, the wonderful tenor saxophonist Erica Lindsay. “She had been gently suggesting that he would be a good drummer for me to check out,” the pianist recalls. “The first time we played together, I remember having so much fun and getting it -- that this was a world class musician. He has a great feel and doesn’t have to play a lot to get that across. Bob's beat is real wide. His style is supportive, expressive and explosive and he has a beautiful drum sound. He’s all ears -- right there with the music as it is happening.”
Sumi composed the date’s opening track, the vibrant Be The Dance, the week before the date knowing that she was going to record with Rufus and Bob. She says, ”It was really composed with Bob Braye in mind. I wanted to have a tune that would embrace his style of playing, something that he could just romp and play freely through. It’s a celebratory 6/8 swing, with the melody primarily in the bass. The bass line just kind of came out at me and I could hear Rufus playing this, with more than one or two raised eyebrows.”
Cole Porter’s All of You, the date’s lone standard, has long been one of Sumi’s favorites. “The arrangement came through a lot of trial and error and just playing it a lot,” the pianist says. “It’s one of those tunes that keeps evolving. It’s at this place now for me, but it keeps changing and I still want to play it a lot more.” Sumi’s improvised introduction reveals her intimate knowledge of the classic composition; while the trio’s seamless segue into the melody unmistakably displays the intuitive empathy among the three players.
The Clinging is a tune taken from a collection of compositions that Sumi composed combining Taiko drums with a jazz ensemble. She explains, “The music was inspired by the I Ching, the Chinese book of philosophy based on nature in its various forms. The Clinging has to do with the darker but also invigorating and active aspects of nature.” On this trio performance the piece takes on a more swinging straight ahead jazz temperament, propelled by Braye’s invigorating drumming.
The eastern influence on Sumi’s music is more clearly evident in the melody of Dreaming of Tibet, a composition based on a dream Sumi had about walking in Ancient Tibet. The tune’s 5/4 meter and deliberate tempo inform it with a trancelike character appropriate to its inspiration.
Quantum Question is the second piece that was composed specifically for this date. It’s dedicated to Sum’s recently departed father, who she says, “spent forty years of his life working on a treatise that he entitled Scientific Cosmism, his theory on the beginning of the universe.” The powerful tune is primarily free, with a form and structure that moves in an open way reminiscent of the work of the late Mal Waldron.
The title track, Long Ago Today, is also informed by Sumi’s loss of her father, as well as her mother, a remarkably hip woman who I had the great pleasure of knowing, in the past few years. “It’s about a feeling of longing and nostalgia, but not getting lost in it,” she says. “Being clear and present with it, letting the past take you forward by ultimately letting go, but not forgetting.” The thoughtful piece sensitively conveys the wisdom of her feelings.
Renewal is a tune composed by Sumi for her two good friends Erica Lindsay and Francesca Tanksley. She explains, “The three of us had a support group for a while where they helped each other deal with seeing creative projects through and dealing with issues around creativity etc. This tune sprang forth from that experience.”
Sumi credits another close friend, Ghanaian master hand drummer and percussionist Joachim Lartey, as the inspiration for Moroccan Daze. " I learned this Morrocan drum rhythm from Joachim and have him to thank for teaching it to me and for some very inspirational drumming sessions/lessons which provided the seed of the idea for this composition.This piece starts in seven and then releases into 3. We learned the rhythm by speaking it first. ‘Ta ki Ta ki Gam a Da,’ which immediately puts the emphasis or accents in the right place, and rises above the analytical approach.”
Just For Now was written several years ago by Sumi while in Kenny Barron’s studio at Rutgers University, where she would often substitute teach for the piano master. Sumi credits Kenny as a “close friend and mentor to whom I owe many thanks to for his quiet but firm support over the years.” That support importantly included the release of Sumi’s second cd, Secret Places, on his own JoKen label. The music here confirms Barron’s faith in her.
The concluding Nami’s Song was written by Sumi for her 12 year old daughter Nami, who, according to her mother, has a very melodic and wonderful presence. “She is very upbeat so I’m not sure why this came out as a ballad, but the composing process is just plain mysterious.”
The music world is full of mysteries. One of them is why it’s been more than ten years since Sumi Tonooka’s last recording as a leader. During that period she has recorded a collaboration with fellow Philadelphian, violinist John Blake, colead a quartet with Erica Lindsay, scored music for numerous films and, most importantly, continued to hone her considerable skills as a pianist and a composer, as is noticeably evident on this long overdue disc. Sumi remains philosophical when considering her lack of widespread recognition, exhibiting the same optimistic outlook she displayed when I first met her long ago. What has changed is that she has now proven that she is one of the finest pianists in jazz today.
New York City
12 June 2005