To hear the music of Sumi Tonooka as she plays on Now: Live at the Howland is to hear music stripped bare. The album presents two solo sets recorded on March 22, 2010 at the Howland Center in Beacon, New York. There are no overdubs and no studio tricks to sweeten the deal.
“The idea was to document the performance, sort of one evening in the life of an artist,” says Tonooka. “Playing solo piano is something I’ve done a lot of, as interior work, but not as performer. You feel like you’re out there bare, with no clothes on. It’s very intimate, really letting people into your world in a different way.”
In this day and age of audio repairs and purported perfection, hearing an artist in her element without the cumbersome obligation of faultlessness is a rare treat. Now: Live at the Howland offers the conception of the live album without these sorts of adornments, presenting an artist working through pieces with nothing more than intelligence and authenticity.
The first set features a series of standards and compositions from some of Tonooka’s inspirations. The program starts with “I Hear a Rhapsody” and ventures effortlessly into Duke Ellington’s “Heaven.” The latter is a beautiful instance of form and flow, with tender chording giving way to audacious flourishes.
The “Mary Lou Williams Medley” floats through pieces like John Stubblefield’s “Baby Man” and Williams’ own “Dirge Blues.” All the while, Tonooka focuses her playing on the blues and sways easily through an homage to her former teacher’s work.
The second set features Tonooka’s own compositions, starting with the contrasts of “Phantom Carousel.” The composition plays with dynamics, moving from disconcerting phrasing into some passages that closely epitomize bliss but constantly signify independence. Whether through quietly evolving progressions or sophisticated additions, Tonooka’s playing scours through a scale of sensations.
And that’s really the thrust of her compositional spirit: she seems unfulfilled when it comes to remaining in one emotional space. Pieces like “Sojourn 1/Uganda Blues” plough through Moroccan rhythms and Randy Weston-inspired moods because they must. Tonooka knows no other way.
“Mingus Mood,” another original work, provides more substantiation. The development is cautious, but Tonooka injects slight bluster to grease the wheels. The blues feel is evident and required, but there are also some classical arches that stream above.
Now: Live at the Howland is a tremendous record. Tonooka’s courageous performance deserves to be heard, unadorned as it is, and her resolute and vital compositions are wonderful in their sureness and diversity. One of our most essential jazz pianists, this album marks another step on what is a very rewarding voyage.