With a career spanning more than 20 years that has taken her from Philadelphia to Boston to Detroit to New York City, pianist and composer Sumi Tonooka has made a special pilgrimage to Seattle and will perform in the upcoming Earshot Jazz Festival in October.
Tonooka has performed all over the world with such noted jazz artists as bassist Rufus Reid and jazz violinist John Blake, Jr. (both friends and colleagues of hers for over 20 years), as well as Kenny Burrell, Little Jimmy Scott, Sonny Fortune, Red Rodney, Benny Golson, and David “Fathead” Newman. At 18, she performed with drummer Philly Joe Jones’ quartet, Le Grand Prix. Now, encouraged by her friend, Sharon Lee, founding Executive Director of the Seattle-based Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), Tonooka has decided to come and live in Seattle for at least a year.
“I’m open to growing in whatever ways I can while I’m here,” she said.
Although she was born and raised in Philadelphia, Tonooka has always felt a close connection to the Northwest. Her mother, born and raised on Bainbridge Island, was forced from the island at the age of 16, during World War II, to Camp Manzanar in California. About 10 years ago, her mother’s ashes were dispersed on a beach at Bainbridge Island. Her mother and others’ names and ages of when they were taken away were engraved in stone on a memorial wall created last year that commemorates the United States government’s forced removal of Japanese American families from the island to internment camps during World War II. It also states on the wall, “Nidoto Nai Yoni (Let It Not Happen Again).” Tonooka recently made a visit there.
“This particular time, it was very moving,” she said. “I do feel a sense of belonging here.”
Since her move to Seattle in July, Tonooka has been busy writing original music, including her first orchestra composition inspired by the circles within life. To date, Tonooka has penned almost 50 compositions in the course of her career. She has also composed over a dozen film scores, some of which have been aired on PBS, such as the Academy Award–nominated “Family Gathering” by Lise Yasui and “Daring to Resist” by Martha Lubell.
Her upcoming concert will feature some of the music she performed on her newest solo CD, “Now–Live at the Howland,” which was recorded at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, NY. Recorded and funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, the album showcases Tonooka as both interpreter and composer with two sets. She devotes the first half of the program to standards and classic compositions by jazz masters who have shaped her musical concept. The second set connects the dots between her muses and her compositional imagination, focusing on her originals. The CD, noted as “intriguing and often unselfconsciously brilliant” by Lucid Culture, was inspired by some of her biggest musical influences, including Mary Lou Williams, who she studied from, and Thelonious Monk, who she fondly remembers seeing perform “Around Midnight” at the Aqua Lounge on her 13th birthday.
“I heard a lot of great jazz growing up—live,” she said.
Tonooka noted that, when she was growing up, she was drawn to piano music that would make her laugh like that of Monk or make her happy like boogie woogie or Fats Waller.
“I used to sit for hours at the piano making up stories and making up sound effects,” she said.
Tonooka started piano and music instruction at the age of seven at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia with Ester Cinberg and then Gary Goldschneider. Tonooka continued classical lessons with Madame Margaret Chaloff of the New England Conservatory of Music, as well as jazz and composition with renowned jazz instructor, Charlie Banacus in Boston. In addition, she earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Philadelphia College of Performing Arts. Over the years, she also studied with Bernard Peiffer, Susan Starr, Dennis Sandole, and Stanley Cowell.
“I’m excited about the concert,” she said. “Seattle seems to be a very interesting place and I am very anxious to discover the west coast.”
She will be performing at the Earshot Jazz Festival on Oct. 29 at 7:30 pm at the Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., on the fourth floor. Tickets are $13, general admission. For more information about Sumi Tonooka, visit sumitonooka.com. For tickets to her upcoming performance, visit www.earshot.org.