For the past dozen years, Sumi Tonooka has been devoting much of her time to teaching, both privately and at Rutgers and SUNY. She has also been involved with saxophonists Chris Burnett and Erica Lindsay in the founding and development of a recording company, Artists Recording Collective. Then there has been work as a composer, with special concentration on scores for film and television documentaries. Not surprising therefore that Tonooka’s presence on the bandstand has been rather less prominent than it was a few years ago. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she spent time in Boston studying with Margaret Chaloff and Charlie Banacos, then Detroit, where she recorded with Marcus Belgrave, before heading back to her hometown where she worked with Odean Pope, studied with Stanley Cowell, Bernard Peiffer and Dennis Sandole, led her own trio and also worked with Philly Joe Jones for a couple of years. In the early 1980s, Tonooka moved to New York City, playing clubs, festivals, making records, regularly leading her own trio and quartet, working often with leading jazz figures, including Rufus Reid, Akira Tana and John Blake Jr. In the late 1990s, Tonooka moved out of the city to pursue the teaching and composing facets of her busy professional like. Fortunately for all lovers of jazz piano, she has continued to make occasional records, of which Initiation (Artists Recording Collective ARC 2000) is a fine example. This was recorded back in 2004 although not immediately released and is a collaboration with Erica Lindsay (backed by Reid and Bob Braye). The co-leaders separately composed all the music and it provides insight into their distinctive and powerful yet subtle skills.
On 26 June Sumi Tonooka will release a double-album that presents her live in concert at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, NY, on 22 March 2011. A solo concert, it was recorded and is presented here in its entirety. On the first CD, Tonooka plays music by jazz composers such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Mary Lou Williams. Among the pieces are Heaven, which is a lesser-known work by Ellington, Monk’s Evidence and a pleasing medley of Williams’s music including Waltz Boogie and Dirge Blues. There are also some popular standards, among them Cole Porter’s All Of You and Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s I’m Old Fashioned. On the second CD, all the music (except an encore) is composed by Tonooka and from this it is clear that her compositions stand comfortably alongside those of her famous forerunners. Included are Phantom Carousel, Mingus Mood (which is also on Initiation) and At Home. The encore is a jaunty stroll through Eubie Blake’s I’m Confessin’, which wittily looks at piano music of a long-past generation through contemporary eyes. Indeed, that particular performance is an appropriate closer to an exceptional concert as throughout the two discs there flows a strong sense of the melodic undertow that has marked Sumi Tonooka’s work across the past two-and-a-half decades. This is music that is not only melodically captivating, but is also intelligent, warm, and a vivid portrayal of how she has embraced much of what has gone before in the history of jazz piano and is helping to keep it alive and flourishing
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