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Sumi Tonooka: Now

Dan McClenaghan By

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Sumi Tonooka is a resourceful jazz pianist who, along with alto saxophonist Christopher Burnett and tenor saxophonist Erica Lindsay, started the Artists Recording Collective, offering up Initiation (2010), an excellent quartet outing which Tonooka co-led with Lindsay, and a more intimate Tonooka-led trio effort, Long Ago Today (2008). A former student of piano legend Mary Lou Williams and an alum of drummer Philly Joe Jones' band, the pianist knows how to work in an ensemble. But going it alone is the ultimate challenge, and Tonooka ups the ante on that risky bet by releasing the double-disc Now, documenting a complete live show.

The first disc showcases Tonooka's prowess as an interpreter, opening with the much-covered "I Hear a Rhapsody." Tonooka's version is bright, breezy, with a dancehall feel that slips into a quiet reverence on the segue into Duke Ellington's "Heaven," a tune—lovely and profound, with a shading of the ground-bound blues—for which solo piano seems a perfect vehicle. The familiar "I'm Old Fashioned" gets an unfamiliar reshaping as the pianist takes things up-tempo with a rollicking rhythm.

The set's thirteen minute highlight, "Mary Lou Williams Medley," blends saxophonist John Stubblefield's "Baby Man," often performed by the legendary pianist, with Williams' own "Waltz Boogie" and her earthy "Dirge Blues." If "I Hear a Rhapsody" is the dancehall—a sunrise of sorts—this is the barroom deep in the dark night. Then, another dawn, with pianist Thelonious Monk's "Evidence," full of hope and wonder, gives way to the elegance of Cole Porter's "All of You."

The second disc features five of Tonooka's original compositions, opening with the haunting "Phantom Carousel," lifting the night into a concert hall vibe with its brooding and ethereal sound. "Sojourn 1 and Uganda" melds two tune inspired by Tonooka's tour through Africa. The music switches from a sense of tumultuous mystery to bright, splashing beauty, with the pianist at her virtuosic peak.

"Mingus Mood," with its mournful melody, plaintive rhythm and restrained anguish, is reminiscent of its namesake, iconic bassist Charles Mingus' "Good Bye Pork Pie Hat," leading into the gorgeous, light stepping "At Home" before Tonooka encores with Eubie Blake's timeless and playful "I'm Confessin.'"

Tonooka covers a lot of stylistic territory on these two discs, in a perfectly sequenced show, and plays with a rare spirituality and musical sagacity. A superb solo piano outing.

Track Listing: CD1: I Hear a Rhapsody; Heaven; I'm Old Fashioned; Mary Lou Williams Medley; Evidence; All of You. CD2: Phantom Carousel; Sojourn 1 and Uganda; Moraccan Daze; At Home; I'm Confessin'.

Personnel: Sumi Tonooka: piano.

Title: Now | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: ARC - Artists Recording Collective

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CD/LP/Track Review
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