A solo recital is the ultimate test of a musician’s resourcefulness, an existential leap onto a lonely stage with nowhere to hide. Sumi Tonooka’s consistently enthralling new CD Now—Live at the Howland (ARC, April 17, 2012) demonstrates that the veteran pianist is more than ready for this scrutiny. Long recognized by her peers as a scintillating improviser, Tonooka offers an authoritative statement with her first solo session, confirming her status as a capaciously creative composer and a keyboard stylist of the highest order.
Recorded at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, NY and funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, the album showcases Tonooka as both interpreter and composer with two revealing sets. She devotes the first half of the program to standards and classic compositions by jazz masters who have shaped her musical concept. The second set connects the dots between her muses and her compositional imagination, focusing on her beautifully realized originals. An unusually vivid snapshot, the album captures the evening exactly as it unfolded, with no touchups, overdubs or sonic sweetening.
“The idea was to document the performance, sort of one evening in the life of an artist,” Tonooka says. “Playing solo piano is something I’ve done a lot of, as interior work, but not as performer. You feel like you’re out there bare, with no clothes on. It’s very intimate, really letting people into your world in a different way. I guess having lived this long I felt I could handle it.”
In interpreting standards, Tonooka possesses a clarity and probing intelligence that offers startling insights into familiar fare (“I’ll play a tune for years to try to find a personal way in,” she says). Her hornlike approach to phrasing transforms “I Hear a Rhapsody,” a soaring standard introduced by Tommy Dorsey in 1941, distilling from the lush chords a lithe melody. In her hands, “I’m Old Fashioned” gets a jolt of energy, so a caressing ballad turns into a bebop workout that would do her Detroit heroes like Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna and Hank Jones proud.
Unlike so many pianists who interpret Monk, Tonooka avoids mimicking his percussive approach while interpreting his classic piece “Evidence.” Though not given to bravura displays, she makes full use of the keyboard while brazenly tearing through Monk’s harmonic steeplechase. Perhaps the most revealing piece in the first set is Tonooka’s blues-steeped Mary Lou Williams medley, which opens with saxophonist John Stubblefield’s “Baby Man,” a tough but tender tune that Williams often played. Tonooka seamlessly segues into Williams’ seminal “Waltz Boogie” (the most significant jazz experiment in waltz time to follow in the footsteps of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz”) and concludes with Williams’ deep azure “Dirge Blues.” Though seemingly disparate, the first set is an extended tribute to Tonooka’s fabulously rich array of teachers and influences.
“My parents took me to see Monk at the Aqua Lounge when I was 13,” says Tonooka, who was born and raised in Philadelphia. “I was already a Monk fan. It was because of his music that I wanted to be a jazz musician. Mary Lou Williams was a teacher of mine, not for long, but at a pivotal time. I used to go see her play in Harlem when I was in college. Being around her person and music, the depth of her spirit, was very profound for me.”
Profound would be the best way to describe Tonooka’s program of original compositions, if the word also conveyed her gift for infusing even the most intricate tunes with a sense of wondrous adventure. She opens the set with “Phantom, Carousel,” a title that effectively evokes the piece’s haunting mood, an unsettling but inviting soundscape built upon a harmonic progression that feels simultaneously playful and mournful.
“It is one of those compositions that came at me whole,” Tonooka says. “I always notice that it has an impact on people when I perform it and I think it has to do with the notes in the piece. There is some heavy mysticism in these tones, very hypnotic.”
“Sojourn 1/Uganda Blues” is a medley of two pieces inspired by a tour through several African nations with a quintet featuring longtime Tonooka collaborator John Blake among others (a documentary on the tour, “A Note Of Hope,” is in production). With its rumbling opening figure and ringing, spiritually charged chords, the piece brings to mind Randy Weston’s Africa-centric sensibility.
The odd meter and bustling energy of “Moroccan Daze” suggests a setting that’s anything but bemusing. Full of sharply drawn incidents and shifting phrases, the piece was inspired by a Moroccan rhythm Tonooka learned while studying North African drumming with Joachim Lartey.
She originally composed the soulfully resolute “Mingus Mood” as part of a score for a documentary about a community’s struggle to prevent their neighborhood from being destroyed by a proposed highway. Tonooka closes the album on an embracing note with “I’m Home,” a beautific melody that concludes the evening like a benediction.
For Tonooka, the concept of home has resonated intensely since her birth. With a Japanese-American mother and African-American father who met and bonded over shared leftist politics, her family settled in West Philadelphia looking for a community where they could feel comfortable. Her mother’s love of jazz suffused the household, and Tonooka took to the piano at a tender age.
Throughout her career, Tonooka has possessed a preternatural gift for gravitating to the heaviest mentors. Graduating from high school several years early, she lit out for Boston at 15 to study at Berklee but instead found what she needed with legendary piano teacher Margaret Chaloff (mother of Serge Chaloff and mentor to Keith Jarrett, Kenny Werner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Steve Kuhn). After paying dues on the Boston scene she moved briefly to Detroit, where she made her recording debut with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, an invaluable mentor for generations of Motown jazz musicians.
Belgrave encouraged Tonooka to head back to her hometown by hooking her up with powerhouse tenor saxophonist Odean Pope. She also studied with pianists Stanley Cowell and Bernard Peiffer and guitarist Dennis Sandole, a teacher who left a profound influence on John Coltrane and Pat Martino. By 17, Tonooka was working steadily with her trio featuring drummer Newman Baker and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. The group provided an outlet for her prolific composing, and led to an almost two-year stint with drum great Philly Joe Jones.
“He heard me with my trio and liked this song I had composed,” Tonooka recalls. “Philly Joe was quite an initiation. I was really green and he was good in a lot of ways, in terms of being generous, and getting me thinking more about rhythm.”
Gigs with the cream of the Philly scene followed, including Sonny Fortune and Kevin Eubanks. By the time she made the move to New York City in 1983, Tonooka was ready. She quickly gained attention as a major new voice, performing at festivals and making her recording debut as a leader on With an Open Heart (Radiant Records) an acclaimed 1990 trio session focusing on her luminous originals that features bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Akira Tana. Tana and Reid were also on hand for 1991’s Taking Time (Candid), with rising saxophonist Craig Handy. On 1992’s Here Comes Kai (Candid), she returned to the trio format with Reid and drummer Lewis Nash. Kenny Barron produced another Tonooka trio session with Reid and Nash, Secret Places (Joken Records), and it’s no coincidence that Reid was on hand again for 2005’s Long Ago Today and 2009’s Initiation.
“It’s been great to have that constant presence with Rufus, somebody who’s there for the journey, someone you can confide in musically,” Tonooka says. “I can’t think of a better foil. His sound has been a big part of my own identity as a composer and player. He’s constantly growing, and he’s a master teacher. I’ve learned a great deal from watching and being around and playing with him.”
Violinist John Blake Jr. is another heavyweight artist with whom Tonooka has forged deep and enduring creative ties. They’ve collaborated on several albums, including 2000’s wondrous duo session “Kindred Spirits
(Spirit Records) and 2007’s “The Traveler,” with bassist Boris Koslov and drummer Johnathan Blake (John Blake Jr.’s son).
Since moving upstate in the late 1990s Tonooka has kept a lower profile on the New York scene, but maintained a significant presence on and off the bandstand. Along with alto saxophonist Chris Burnett and tenor saxophonist Erica Lindsay she co-founded the internationally recognized recording label Artists Recording Collective (ARC). She’s also a dedicated educator who runs a private home studio and has taught for Rutgers and SUNY. In addition, Tonooka has composed scores for numerous documentaries.
Not surprisingly, her singular creative journey has attracted the attention of several award-winning journalists, and her career has been explored in several books, including Royal Stokes’ Living the Jazz Life, Leslie Gourse’s Madame Jazz, and Francis Davis’ In The Moment. “…she is among the best of today’s jazz pianists,” said Davis. Now is the latest revealing chapter from an artist who is always looking to surprise herself as well as her listeners.
“The idea of artistic perfection is just that, an idea,” Tonooka says. “It’s something you strive towards and try to attain, but it’s about being in the process.”