Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sumi Tonooka - Now

 Live registration of a concert at the Howland Centre (Beacon - NY) (March 2010)
An existential leap onto a lonely stage with nowhere to hide.
 Hans Koert

The US born pianist and composer Sumi Tonooka is rather unknown in this part of the world. Born in Philadelphia, October 1956, she moved to Boston at her 15th, where she got piano lessons from Margaret Chaloff ( mother of guitar player Serge Chaloff) and Charlie Banacos, pianist, composer and educator, who was one of the leading pianists in jazz education .... Moved to Detroit she made her debut on record with trumpet player Marcus Belgrave, who can be heard on Mingus famous Changes One and Two recordings (December 1974).

 Sumi Tonooka ( Source:

Sumi founded, aged 17 years old, her own trio with Tyrone Brown and Newman Baker and started to compose. During this period she came into contact with drummer Philly Joe Jones, who advised her .... He heard me with my trio and liked this song I had composed, Tonooka remembers: I was really green and he was good in a lot of ways, in terms of being generous with his musical expertise and getting me thinking more about rhythm.

Sumi Tonooka - Now (ARC 2369) ( cover design: Paul Tang)

Before she moved to New York City, she was able to play with great names like Sonny Fortune and Robin and Kevin Eubanks. She made her first own album August 1984 with Rufus Reid, a personel friend and colleague of over twenty-five years, and Akira Tana, on which her composition Phantom Carousel could be found, the track that opens the second set of her Beacon Center concert with own compositions.

 Sumi Tonooka's latest album Now, a 2cd record, is a registration of a solo recital at the Howland Center in Beacon (NY), the 27th of March, 2010. Playing a solo concert is the ultimate test for a musician's resourcefulness. The idea was to document the performance, sort of one evening in the life of an artist. The first set contains all standards, played in a way only Tonooka can. She takes compositions by Duke Ellington ( Heaven), Cole Porter ( All of You) and Thelonious Monk (Evidence) to task. 

She heard Monk playing at a concert at the Aqua Lounge; a present gived by her parents for her 13th birthday and his music fascinated her:  .. and it was then and there .. that's why I decided to be a jazz musician. Her version of Evidence is really great in my opinion. She was also inspired by veteran piano player Mary Lou Williams, who was her teacher while in New York City for a short period. I studied with her at her home in Harlem and saw her perform a number of times.  The depth of her spirit and musicianship was profound to me. Sumi Tonooka honors her with a medley, which features Mary Lou Williams tunes, she loved to play, like Baby Man, Waltz Boogie and Dirge Blues.
 The second set was reserved for her own compositions, like her before mentioned Phantom Carousel. Her compositions are inspired by her African roots ( she has an African-American father and a Japanese-American mother) in compositions like Sojourn 1 and Uganda Blues, which was inspired by a tour along several West African countries with a quintet featuring violinist John Blake. Her composition Moroccan Daze, first recorded in 2004 with her trio ( Rufus Reid - Bob Braye) for the album Long Ago Today, remembers her meeting with Joachim Lartey, an expert in African drumming.

Detail of the cover (photo courtesy Paul Tsang)

Isn't it great that she finished the second set, the concert and her album with some stride music, honoring the legendary piano player Eubie Blake, who was active even in his old age and was, for years, the only surviving active symbol of the early days of jazz ...... 

You can order this great 2cd album at her website.

Hans Koert
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 Sumi Tonooka is one of those modern jazz piano players rather unknown in this part of the world. Since her debut album in 1986 she is a celebrated and respected pianist, inspired more then 40 years ago by the music of Thelonious Monk. In her latest album Now she goes solo - the ultimate test of a musicians's resourcefulness, an existential leap onto a lonely stage with nowhere to hide ....  

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