What’s Up with Sumi Tonooka?
Pianist-composer Sumi Tonooka, a native of Philadelphia, has always been a very thoughtful artist with an exceptional touch at the keyboard and an uncommon cultural sensitivity based in equal parts on her diverse background and growing up in one of the crucibles of jazz. She has always kept good company so it was no surprise when she showed up on piano in master bassist Rufus Reid’s band at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club some months back. But for me this was my first Sumi sighting in many moons and it was a delight renewing acquaintances with an artist who has always had a distinctive point of view. Her latest album Long Ago Today on the independent Artists Recording Collective was welcomed with open ears by listeners to my WWOZ radio shows, an exceptional date with a real working trio concept featuring Reid and the late drummer Bob Braye. So what’s up these days with Sumi Tonooka?
Willard Jenkins: I was delighted to see you at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club with Rufus Reid because it had been some time since I last heard you. Where have you been? Why the relative hiatus between records, and how long has it been exactly?
Sumi Tonooka: Itâ€™s been ten years since my last release as a leader (Secret Places on Kenny Barronâ€™s label Joken). I am just glad that I could and did take things into my own hands regarding this state of affairs and got it together to release something on my own this year. I’ve been doing what I always do: staying active, at the piano playing, studying, teaching, and composing music. I’ve been a member of the John Blake Quartet for 18 years (as well as Rufus Reid’s Quintet), I have also been performing and traveling with musicians who live upstate [New York] and there are quite a few of us. I have been composing for film and dance as well.
WJ: The differences between the issues that women practitioners of this music face as opposed to male musicians have been somewhat well-chronicled. As something of a sub-set of those differences what issues might you consider particular to musicians who are also mothers raising children?
ST: That answer depends on a lot of factors, such as what our personal situation is as far as our partner, financial picture, etc. I think that what holds true is that there are always compromises that women make. Its important to realize that you can’t have it all and all at once (not easily). Motherhood is wonderful and demanding, and takes a lot of a certain type of energy. It challenges you to not lose sight of your dreams. You have to maintain a certain amount of discipline, and consistency of devotion to your art to keep growing, and all of that can be a bit of a balancing act, especially for a woman. The word "multi-tasking" comes up a lot when I talk to other musician moms about this subject… as well as needing a sense of humor.
WJ: As someone of blended heritage â€“ Japanese and African American â€“ what would you say those two cultural heritages have contributed to your music in the aggregate?
ST: A lot, especially in ways that I am not consciously aware of, which makes it difficult to articulate. I had to purposely set out to explore my Japanese side because my mother was born in this country and her culture was present in my life mostly through contact with my grandparents, who lived with us for the last years of their lives. Being around them helped me make the decision to compose a piece of music called "Out From the Silence" dedicated to al the Japanese and Japanese Americans interned during World War ll — my mother’s family among them. This piece took me on a path of exploration into Japanese culture, music and poetry in a very specific way. Had I not decided to compose that work, the windo into that way of seeing may have stayed blurry.
African American culture was in my life in a more obvious way; I grew up in West Philadelphia in a very diverse neighborhood called Powelton Village. My mother was the big jazz fan. Both my parents took me to see Thelonious Monk for my 13th birthday at The Aqua Lounge on 52nd Street.
I think all of my siblings and me had to figure out for ourselves what being of "mixed heritage" means. Each one of us has a different experience of that. For me, it has to develop a stronger sense of self because it made me come to grips with the nuance of race, identity and culture in a very individual way.
WJ: Talk about your process for developing your latest record â€œLong Ago Today.â€
ST: My very generous friend John Hodian was leaving to go on the road for a month and basically handed me the keys to his studio, with the words "here, its yours". I knew it had been too long since my previous recording and I wanted to do something about it. So this presented the perfect opportunity. The studio was in his home in Woodstock. It had a wonderful Yamaha grand — I usually prefer Steinways, but this piano had something special. During that month I produced the trio recording Long Ago Today — as well as co-produced a quartet date with tenor saxophonist and composer Erica Lindsay. We hired a wonderful engineer, Bob Beleicki, a great rhythm section — Rufus Reid and Bob Bray — and went to work. We had a whole week in the studio. Erica and I had been playing together for a few years and had often talked about wanting to document our musical collaborations. I also had quite a few new compositions for trio.
ST: The major difference is that all the responsibility, time and expense was mine. It’s a big committment and investment and it took vision and patience to see it all through. There are so many phases of producing a recording and releasing it on your own. Its important to have a plan. There is the creative and fun phase, that is making the music (hopefully under ideal conditions), then there is the production of the audio, recording, mixing, and mastering. Then there is the packaging and design, the pressing of the CDs, and promotion, airplay, publicist, etc. Many of the decisions that you make depend on what you can afford. Ideally you want to be able to hire the best people for the things you are not able to do, or find creative ways of thinking outside the box to get things done. It’s daunting, but the upside is at the end its yours.
A lot of musicians run out of steam after the CD is released, as far as promotion and marketing, and that is very understandable (because of the physical, emotional, and financial exhaustion) but not wise to stop there, because yuo need to find ways to make the CD work for you and get people to the product. That can entail a whole plan on the other side of the release. The internet is a powerful tool and the world is just a click away, but the problem is there is so much music out there. So what are you going to do to make your CD stand out? I had a lot of help and support from Chris Burnett from ARC Records. He helped me put together a business plan and once a week we would talk and check things off the list. It helped me to stay focused and not get too overwhelmed.
ST: I’m working with Erica on the mixing phase of our quartet date. It has the working titke of "Initiation". Erica is such an outstanding player and composer and I am very excited about this recording. I think that the album is very interesting in the way our material works together as a whole. There is also an incredible musical chemistry on this recording that is hard to describe but easy to hear. It also features the work of world class drummer Bob Braye who died early this year. Erica and I are both deeply saddened by Bob’s passing and will miss him greatly, but we are also so grateful that we were able to document Bob’s playing before he left the planet. Rufus and Bob sound so amazing together!
WJ: What other projects and activities are you working on these days?
ST: I’m composing a documentary film with the working title of "Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter". It is about a Malian refugee mother living in West Philadelphia who is seeking asylum in order to keep her daughter from female circumcision in Mali, where it has been the custom for centuries. I feel fortunate to have a working association with a wonderful group of women filmmakers in Philadelphia whose work centers on human rights. This film is produced by Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater and has received funding from the Sundance Institute. Composing for film is challenging and enjoyable work.