A Fascinating Double Live Solo Album by Sumi Tonooka
Isn’t it ironic that if you’re absolutely inundated with music, the great tracks stand out even more? The other day, an absolutely bloodcurdling modal piano melody made its way through the space here. What was this deceptively simple, chromatically creepy masterpiece? A solo outtake from Frank Carlberg’s Tivoli Trio album? Christopher O’Riley exhuming a rare Bernard Herrmann track? Another Ryan Truesdell discovery of a previously unreleased Gil Evans piece? It could be any of the above, but it’s not. It turned out to be Sumi Tonooka playing her own composition Phantom Carousel (click here to watch it on vimeo), the most viscerally stunning of several originals on her intriguing and often unselfconsciously brilliant new double-disc set, Now, a live solo concert recording from last year at an upstate New York auditorium. Tonooka studied with Mary Lou Williams, and she covers Williams here, but she’s an utterly original player: there is no one who sounds like her. Grounded in the blues but with a flair for the unexpected and an ear for the avant garde, Tonooka includes both sets she played that night, unedited.
It’s not clear if the sequence of the discs matches the set lists, but it’s possible, as it opens with a casually coalescing take of I Hear a Rhapsody, its laid-back bluesiness giving way to a pinpoint, twinkling articulacy that sends it out on an upbeat note. From there, the covers are reinvented and sometimes disfigured, fascinatingly. Ellington’s Heaven is transformed with a spacious, distanced approach and coloristic ripples, while Jerome Kern’s I’m Old Fashioned, held up by matter-of-factly strange block chords, is so sideways and NOT old-fashioned it’s funny. A Mary Lou Williams medley opens with John Stubblefield’s Baby Man – a standout track in the Williams repertoire – done as part ragtime, part biting, stern minor-key spiritual. Williams’ Waltz Boogie becomes even more of a dirge than the version of Dirge Blues that Tonooka segues into. By contrast, Thelonious Monk’s Evidence is a playfully syncopated romp, followed by a hip, allusive, quote-infused take on Cole Porter’s All of You worthy of Bill Evans.
But it’s the originals that are the stars here. After setting a sepulchral tone with Phantom Carousel, Tonooka follows with a diptych of Sojourn I and then Uganda, her left hand coming to life slowly like a volcano emerging from dormancy – or McCoy Tyner circa 1972 – climbing slowly from shadowy, minimalist blues to rippling variations and a completely unexpected murky muddle that slips away gracefully. The tersely dancing Moroccan Daze, which follows, makes it a trilogy. That she would title the expansive, austerely mournful tune after that Mingus Mood attests to her appreciation for the guy who wrote Goodbye Porkpie Hat (which this piece references strongly). If the title of At Home is to be believed, home for Tonooka is warm but very lowlit, sort of Dave Brubeck but with a more pensively exploratory edge. The concert ends on a jaunty note with I’m Confessin’, Tonooka interspersing playfully leaping upper-register cadenzas into Eubie Blake’s genial ragtime tune.
All this again begs the question: why don’t more artists make live albums, considering how cost-effective they are compared to studio recordings? Maybe because jazz artists assume, often correctly, that jazz fans want a clean recording that sounds better than your typical mp3 bedroom recording? But maybe, in the age of the iphone, it’s time to revisit that assumption. As this album reminds, a recording from a good room is bound to sound great, whether the place is a club or a studio. Who needs overdubs, anyway? Or as Tonooka might have been thinking here, who needs a band?
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