The name of Sumi Tonooka conjures two images. First, the name of a fine jazz pianist whose album, Taking Time
(Candid, 1990), was retrieved from a cutout bin circa the year of its release. Secondly, around the same time, seeing the pianist perform, chairing a rhythm section that supported the formidable duo of trombonists Steve Turre and Fred Wesley. Talk about cooking setsthis was a ringside table just under the feet of this powerful group, where it was possible to marvel at the agility and lyricism of the pianist.
So, the biggest question is...what happened to this pianist in the interim? Long Ago Today is only her fifth album, recorded in October, 2004. Reading her background is inspiring, in that Tonooka comes from Philadelphia, and has studied with the likes of Kenny Barron, Madame Margaret Chaloff (mother of Serge), French piano master Bernard Peiffer, Mary Lou Williams and Stanley Cowell.
Tonooka's last recording was almost ten years ago, with Long Ago Today is a marvel of her fluidity, self-assuredness and lyricism as a player. Although there is only one recognizable tune on the album, Cole Porter's "All of Me," it is easy to imagine how her fingers would wrap around other jazz standards and songs from the American Songbook
The variety of her own compositions displays a sense of keen excitement and melodic balladry. Her accompanists include veteran bassist Rufus Reid, who has appeared on all of her previous albums and has worked with Tonooka over the past 25 years. His empathy on bass is easily identifiable, and he provides a solo on the closing "Nami's Song."
Tonooka's drummer, Bob Braye, sadly passed in February 2007. Here is a percussionist with the credentials of having played with several jazz names, yet he's never previously been heard on record. Hiss sense of timing and dynamics has the sound and feel of a much younger musician and, combined with his two colleagues, makes this a formidable trio.