SUMI TONOOKA & ERICA LINDSAY
Initiation (ARC, 2010)
by J Hunter
In 2005, pianist Sumi Tonooka was given the run of fellow pianist John Hodian’s Woodstock recording studio. Wasting no time, Tonooka gathered up friends and associates, and recorded enough material for two discs – Tonooka’s trio date Long Ago Today (ARC, 2008) and the material that makes up Initiation. “Historical recordings” are usually releases containing long-lost music from decades past; Initiation technically qualifies for this category, since it does come from a past decade – that is to say, the last decade, or “the oughts.”
In all seriousness, the disc is historical in that it gives us a benchmark with whichto measure how far reed wizard Erica Lindsay has come in the last six years. Lindsay is best known round these parts for her live disc Yes (ARC, 2006), her membership in the Jeff “Siege” Siegel Quartet, and her more recent collaborations with another Siegel Quartet alum, pianist Francesca Tanksley. Initiation shows anyone familiar with Lindsay that she’s been playing sax and taking names for some time, and the music from this 2005 session needs to be included in any discussion of her voluminous talent.
Lindsay’s opening composition “Mari” doles out busy, busy bop from the first note, with Tonooka establishing the foundation figure while Lindsay lays out the melody. As aggressive as the tenor sax is, there’s a broad comfort level that shows this music is right in Lindsay’s wheelhouse, and she’s going to do this tune up proud and have fun while she does it. Tonooka’s comping is almost spritely in its energy, and when she takes the spotlight, her solo is bright and sharp, with great depth and excellent construction. By this time, it’s become patently obvious that Lindsay’s sax lines inspire Tonooka’s piano work, and vice versa, resulting in a piece that jumps with excitement.
The mutual influence doesn’t stop there. While Tonooka and Lindsay split compositional duties, there’s always the sense that one is writing for the other. Tonooka’s “South Street” is pure New York attitude, letting Lindsay use her bold, wide tone to shape the images that come with the piece; “In the Void” and Tonooka’s title track both live out on that edge where Lindsay likes to visit on occasion, and both tunes keep the listener off-balance while maintaining a frenetic hard-bop attack. Lindsay’s smoky blues “Somewhere Near heaven” is a noir tribute to someone long gone that lets Tonooka play sweet and mournful piano, while an early version of “Yes” leaves no doubt of Tonooka’s vast facility for improvisation.
The third voice on the disc is none other than Rufus Reid, who played bass on Long Ago and who Tonooka played with on Reid’s quintet CD/DVD Live at the Kennedy Center. Reid is the perfect choice for the protagonist in Tonooka’s “Mingus Mood” because he’s got the tone and the lyricism that comes close to Charles Mingus’ monstrous style. Reid has a conversation with Lindsay on the opening to “Serpent’s Tale” that is absolutely riveting, and Reid’s glowing in-the-clear prologue to “Black Urgency” is a completely different animal from the intense bop that follows.
Initiation is also historical because it is the late Bob Braye’s last recording date: The drummer died in January 2006, and the disc is dedicated to him (as well as to Marilyn Lindsay and Emiko Tonooka, the mothers of the co-leaders). Braye’s performance on Initiation alone makes that a major loss. He could definitely bring the noise when called upon (as he was on “Black Urgency”), but his talent for embellishment and punctuation made him a pearl of great price. His trade-offs with the rest of the quartet on “Mari” up the excitement on the piece’s last section, and he teams up with Lindsay to give “Yes” the kind of space-shuttle send-off the blistering closer needs.
One result of Initiation is we get to see how broad Lindsay’s sound has become. Her power and command is excellent here, but in retrospect, it’s just a taste of what’s to come. At the end of the day, though, Initiation is an unknown gem that’s finally seeing the light of day – a brilliant collaboration that is every bit as shiny as it should be.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.