Catching up with Sumi Tonooka

One thing about this music we call jazz, it seems that far too often when an artist is at their peek of artistic maturity, they somehow become scarce or fade a bit from the spotlight. Could that be the case with the superb pianist Sumi Tonooka? Now that she’s parented and is deep in the middle period of her artistry, we don’t hear from her enough, even though her skills have ripened beautifully in the process. Then just recently along came her lovely new solo piano 2-CD set Now (ARC label), recorded live at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, NY.

This solo concert recording is full of great charm and sheer beauty – along with the kind of easeful lilt, emotional depth, self-assuredness, downright swing and knowingness that comes with artistic and personal maturity. On disc one she explores three Great American Songbook selections – “I Hear a Rhapsody”, “I’m Old Fashioned”, and “All of You” – in addition to heaping helpings of Ellington, Monk, and an expansive Mary Lou Williams medley. Disc 2, with the exception of a cheery, striding “I’m Confessin'”, is all about Sumi’s originals and is the more introspective of the two discs.

Following some recent communications, time to catch up with Sumi Tonooka…

I am currently living in Seattle for an extended stay. I am living alone for the first time in some 30 years or so, and enjoying it. I am performing for the Earshot Festival on October 29th, solo piano [7:30 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle], and the show is going to be taped for Jazz NorthWest a live syndicated show, via NPR, produced by Jim Wilke. My current solo CD NOW came out earlier this year and is doing pretty well as far as airplay and reviews.

I was one of 38 jazz composers, chosen from a pool of 200 applicants to attend the JCOI Jazz Composers Intensive this summer in LA. This program was a life changing experience for me and got me thinking in new ways about jazz, music and composition. In order to move further in the program, composers must submit an orchestra sample of our proposed piece. The selected composers then have the opportunity to take part in an orchestra reading of their piece which will be performed and recorded by a major symphony orchestra.I just completed and submitted my proposal and orchestral sampIe and I am crossing my fingers on this one.

My orchestra piece has to do with circles in life. The reason I am in Seattle now is an example of one such circle. I was looking to move and while deciding what I wanted to do I happened to call my best friend from third grade, Sharon Lee. We had reconnected about 15 years ago, and I just wanted to see how she was doing. Sharon strongly suggested that I move to Seattle and offered a place for me to stay for an extended amount of time to see how I liked it. Curiously, I had been trying to get to the Seattle area this year because it had been ten years since my mother died, and I wanted to do a pilgrimage back to to her birth place on Bainbridge Island.

Bainbridge Island is a twenty-minute ferry ride from Seattle across the Puget Sound. My mother lived there until the age of sixteen, when she was taken away by US army soldiers armed with rifles fixed with bayonets, along with one hundred thousand other Japanese and Japanese American families throughout the US. They were forced from their homes and placed behind barbed wire in Internment Camps.

This summer, my sister Carla and I returned to Pleasant beach on Bainbridge where we spread my mothers ashes ten years ago. We visited a cemetery there with the headstones of two of my uncles who had died during or soon after childbirth. My grandmother had returned there to buy the headstones much later in life. We also visited a beautiful memorial, recently erected in 2011. It has the names of all the people taken from Bainbridge that fateful day. My mother’s name, Emiko Tonooka, and the age she was when taken, is engraved in granite, as well as the names of my grandparents and uncle on their own family plaque. It was a pivotal moment in my life, experiencing this memorial. I had not even connected the dots about all of this; how strange and magical life is that I would return to my mother’s birthplace thanks to the generosity of my best friend from third grade at Powel School in West Philadelphia who just happens to have made Seattle her home for the past twenty years.

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