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: The Tivoli Trio

This is exquisitely creepy, surreal stuff. It’s as good a jazz album as has come over the turnstile here so far this year. Jazz pianist Frank Carlberg grew up in Helsinki, fascinated by carnivals and the circus – his neighborhood amusement park featured a small combo, the Tivoli Trio, with the unlikely combination of trumpet, organ and drums. As a composer, Carlberg particularly excels at big band arrangements; this time out, he endeavored to recreate what he’d heard as a child, if only in spirit rather than actual memory. It’s a deliciously twisted, disquieting ride, worth it for the rhythm section alone – John Hebert’s bass and Gerald Cleaver’s drums jump right in on the fun, each taking on a gleefully sinister, gnomish persona.

An off-center fanfare opens the album; bass and drums mimic a restless crowd, and then they’re off with Tricks, a scurrying, phantasmagorically creepy, repetitive music box themed tune. A chase sequence follows with suspenseful variations on the previous theme, Carlberg utilizing a marvelously eerie, repetitive series of horn voicings. On Rumble Mumble, drums take centerstage, Carlberg playing deftly diabolical tritone-flavored accents off them. They follow with a strange little vignette, circular piano riff against bass screeching and squealing like the ghost of a decapitated ape.

Bill’s Hat is sad, tired, possibly murderous little march that morphs into a swinging shuffle, the backstage crew at the sideshow having a little laugh at someone’s expense – Hebert gets to throw some knives at his bandmates’ feet as they dance around. On the next track, Two for Tea, the rhythm section bounces around playfully as Carlberg gets to throw knives this time. This is where the truth comes out: they’re a team of gremlins, everybody off on his own yet completely with the same mind when it comes to trouble. Next is another strange miniature with brief horror-movie, cello-like arco work by Hebert against methodical, glimmering block chords from Carlberg.

Devious and high-spirited, Potholes has Hebert providing atmospherics as the drums creep around disorientingly – then Carlberg comes sailing in, oblivious to the trouble the other two have just been up to. The most straight-up jazz number here, Spit (The Game) works from atonal punches on the piano to block chord work driven by judicious bass chords or scrapy bowing, Cleaver’s ever-present cymbal boom just a mallet’s-length away. Tumbles is evocatively if completely uneasily acrobatic with sizeable breaks for devious bass and drums; the cd winds up with the less-than-subtly menacing, expansive yet poignantly lyrical Harlequin and then a brief reprise for the crowd, Sgt. Pepper style. Put this on and then kill the lights – you’ll see it in December on our best albums of the year list.

May 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment