Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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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July 3, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Erica Lindsay & Sumi Tonooka – Initiation

Recorded back in 2004, this is a brand-new release on the cusp of becoming a welcome rediscovery. A quartet jazz session featuring compositions by tenor saxophonist/Bard College professor Erica Lindsay and pianist Sumi Tonooka along with an absolutely killer rhythm section of Rufus Reid on bass and Bob Braye on drums, most of this dexterously walks the line between purism and accessibility. Lindsay plays with a confident, smoky tone and a keen sense of melody; likewise, Tonooka’s style is comfortably bluesy and assured. Reid is his usual fluid, smartly melodic self and Braye – who sadly did not live to see this album released – turns in a powerful, memorable performance. If this was his swan song, he picked a hell of a note to go out on, whether getting the cymbals shimmering on a turnaround or elevating the third track above the level of So What homage with an aggressive, fullscale, Elvin Jones-style charge.

The opening track, Mari is a catchy, hook-based swing number; Lindsay evokes Joe Henderson with her casually tuneful, wee hours vibe reasserted by Sunooka and then Reid, cleverly foreshadowing Lindsay’s return from the bar. Mingus Mood, a thoughtful ballad, is less Mingus than Grover Washington Jr. (don’t laugh!!!) in purist mode, i.e. circa All My Tomorrows, almost minimalist as Lindsay and then Reid carry the tune over Tonooka’s tersely precise chords.The title track playful shifts from tricky, winking intro to a casual Lindsay solo that she builds smartly and casually around a series of rapidfire clusters; Tonooka deftly works her solo rhythmically with latin flourishes. The somewhat hypnotic Serpent’s Tail plays an understated rhumba rhythm off a repetitive Reid riff that both sax and piano use as a springboard for expansively tasteful excursions.

The late 50s riff-driven swing vibe returns pleasantly with In the Void, followed by the ballad Somewhere Near Heaven which powerfully contrasts brooding, sometimes ominous, Bill Mays-ish piano with pensively optimistic sax. Black Urgency shuffles with a tunefulness and sense of direction worthy of JD Allen and features Braye at his most counterintuitive and incisive. The album closes with arguably its strongest (and most rhythmically challenging) number, simply titled Yes, Lindsay and then Tonooka at their most forceful and memorable, whether pulsing on the beat or swirling with rivulets of glissandos. There’s a lot to enjoy here, more than an hour’s worth of tunes.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment