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Artist s P.O.V.

The Return of Sumi Tonookaposted by The Independent Ear on Oct 29
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 cult
ural sensitivity based in equal parts on her diverse background and growing up i
n one of the crucibles of jazz. She has always kept good company so it was no s
urprise when she showed up on piano in master bassist Rufus Reid s band at the Ken
nedy Center Jazz Club some months back. But for me this was my first Sumi sight
ing 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 lis
teners to my WWOZ radio shows, an exceptional date with a real working trio conc
ept featuring Reid and the late drummer Bob Braye. So what s up these days with S
umi 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 yo
u been? Why the relative hiatus between records, and how long has it been exactl
Sumi Tonooka: It s been ten years since my last release as a leader (Secret Place
s on Kenny Barron s label Joken). I am just glad that I could and did take thing
s into my own hands regarding this state of affairs and got it together to relea
se something on my own this year. I ve been doing what I always do: staying act
ive, at the piano playing, studying, teaching, and composing music. I ve been a m
ember 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 Yor
k] and there are quite a few of us. I have been composing for film and dance as
WJ: The differences between the issues that women practitioners of this music fa
ce as opposed to male musicians have been somewhat well-chronicled. As somethin
g 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 disc
ipline, 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-taski
ng" 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 Japanese and African American 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 sid
e because my mother was born in this country and her culture was present in my l
ife 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. Th
is piece took me on a path of exploration into Japanese culture, music and poetr
y in a very specific way. Had I not decided to compose that work, the windo int
o 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 13
th 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 Long Ago Today.
ST: My very generous friend John Hodian was leaving to go on the road for a mont
h and basically handed me the keys to his studio, with the words "here, its your
s". 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 Stei
nways, but this piano had something special. During that month I produced the t
rio recording Long Ago Today as well as co-produced a quartet date with tenor sa
xophonist and composer Erica Lindsay. We hired a wonderful engineer, Bob Beleic
ki, a great rhythm section Rufus Reid and Bob Bray and went to work. We had a w
hole 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 al
so had quite a few new compositions for trio.
ST: The major difference is that all the responsibility, time and expense was mi
ne. 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 p
hase, that is making the music (hopefully under ideal conditions), then there is
the production of the audio, recording, mixing, and mastering. Then there is t
he packaging and design, the pressing of the CDs, and promotion, airplay, public
ist, etc. Many of the decisions that you make depend on what you can afford. I
deally you want to be able to hire the best people for the things you are not ab
le 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 promotio
n and marketing, and that is very understandable (because of the physical, emoti
onal, 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 e
ntail 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 mu
sic 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 t
ogether a business plan and once a week we would talk and check things off the l
ist. 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 wo
rking titke of "Initiation". Erica is such an outstanding player and composer a
nd I am very excited about this recording. I think that the album is very inter
esting in the way our material works together as a whole. There is also an incr
edible 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 h
im greatly, but we are also so grateful that we were able to document Bob s playin
g 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 Daught
er". It is about a Malian refugee mother living in West Philadelphia who is see
king asylum in order to keep her daughter from female circumcision in Mali, wher
e it has been the custom for centuries. I feel fortunate to have a working asso
ciation with a wonderful group of women filmmakers in Philadelphia whose work ce
nters on human rights. This film is produced by Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwat
er and has received funding from the Sundance Institute. Composing for film is
challenging and enjoyable work.
Posted in Artist's P.O.V.