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Sumi Tonooka: NOW: Solo Live at the Howland Cultural Center

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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There are some jazz players who suffer an unusually large gap between their credentials and their renown. Pianist Sumi Tonooka is a case in point. She studied with Mary Lou Williams, made her recording début with Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave (of Motown/Tribe Records fame), and was part of Philly Joe Jones's band. Two especially strong albums—Long Ago Today (Artists Recording Collective, 2008) and Initiation (Artists Recording Collective, 2010, with saxophonist Erica Lindsay)—exhibited a distinctive Williams-like piano style, with strong original compositions. Given this résumé, one wonders why Tonooka is not mentioned in the same breath as significantly better-known pianists.

This lack of renown seems not to trouble Tonooka however, whose attention is focused on crafting music of especial depth. NOW finds the pianist in concert at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York, performing a solo piano set. The program is broadly autobiographical, with the first disc honoring Williams' influences, from Duke Ellington to Thelonious Monk, and the second made up of selections from her own impressive songbook.

A long "Mary Lou Williams Medley" occupies the emotional and musical center of gravity of the first disc—of the whole album, arguably. The medley begins with a deliberate and faithful version of saxophonist John Stubblefield's "Baby Man" (especially redolent of two performances by Williams on her excellent live Free Spirits (Steeplechase, 1975)). Williams' own "Waltz Boogie" and "Dirge Blues" follow "Baby Man." Meanwhile, Monk's "Evidence," brightly played, is another tour de force.

The second disc traverses Tonooka's biography, with episodes of travel to Africa ("Sojourn 1 and Uganda") and high points of her discography. "Mingus Mood," a standout track on Initiation thanks to Lindsay's saxophone and Reid's bass, sounds, if anything, better as solo piano, and neatly echoes the Williams medley from the first disc.

A playful rendition of Eubie Blake's "I'm Confessin' That I Love You" concludes. Somehow, the encore—like the entire disc—manages to embrace a century of jazz piano while sounding as contemporary as the record's title: NOW, indeed.

Track Listing: CD1: I Hear A Rhapsody; Heaven; I'm Old Fashioned; Mary Lou Williams Medley (Baby Man/Waltz Boogie/Dirge Blues); Evidence; All of You. CD2: Phantom Carousel; Soujourn 1 and Uganda; Moroccan Daze; Mingus Mood; At Home; I'm Confessin'.

Personnel: Sumi Tonooka: piano.

Title: NOW: Solo Live at the Howland Cultural Center | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: ARC - Artists Recording Collective

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