Jazz has famously been described as the sound of surprise, but Sumi Tonooka makes a vivid case for the way jazz careers can evolve in astonishing directions. As a veteran improviser, the Philadelphia pianist, composer, and bandleader knows all about navigating unexpected twists and turns on the bandstand. Now she’s in the midst of an unanticipated career swerve that has taken her deep into new territory as a composer.
For much of her career Tonooka (pronounced To-NO-O-ka) has thrived in the trio context, performing around the world with a series of consummate ensembles that were often anchored by bass maestro Rufus Reid. But over the past decade she’s been awarded a series of increasingly ambitious commissions involving leading chamber ensembles, symphonies and fellow jazz explorers. It’s a development that she “didn’t see coming,” Tonooka says. “Now I’m smitten with the orchestra, the sound potential. I’m realizing that I have something I can bring to this tradition.”
In many ways 2023 has been a banner year for Tonooka. She was named a 2023 recipient of a prestigious Pew Fellowship. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra premiered her “Only the Midnight Sky and Silent Stars,” a work commissioned by the Emerging Black Composers Project. And after the in-person premiere of “Under the Surface” with the Alchemy Sound Project collective at The Painted Bride in Philadelphia, she toured the West Coast with the jazz chamber ensemble. The work and tour were supported by a Chamber Music America, New Jazz Works Grant and South Arts Jazz Roads grant.
Since emerging on the Philadelphia scene in the 1970s Tonooka has covered a lot of ground, geographically, stylistically and emotionally, encompassing stints in Boston, Detroit, New York and Seattle. While once again ensconced in Philly’s vital jazz scene, she’s put down creative roots everywhere she’s lived, developing a polymorphous body of work that has drawn numerous accolades from jazz writers and fellow musicians.
In addition to her symphonic and chamber works, jazz recordings and performances, Tonooka has composed more than 20 film scores, including Lise Yasui’s Academy Award-nominated “Family Gathering” and most recently Carol Bash’s Mary Lou Williams, the Lady Who Swings the Band and Phil Bertelson’s The Picture Taker.
Her journey into symphonic writing started in 2013 when she was one of 38 jazz composers selected to participate in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Intensive, (JCOI) a Doris Duke Charitable Foundation-backed program created through Columbia University, UCLA’s Herb Albert School of Music and EarShot Orchestra Readings to support and foster new works for orchestra by jazz composers. “They told us we need you,” she recalls. “That there’s never been a worse time for orchestras, but there’s never been a better time for jazz composers to be coming into this arena. I was very skeptical.”
Despite her qualms, Tonooka jumped in and the JCOI led to her first symphonic work, the yin/yang-inspired “Full Circle,” which the American Composers Orchestra premiered in New York City. Several conductors were duly impressed, and new assignments followed. Seeking to integrate her life as a jazz artist into her new passion, Tonooka wrote the concerto for orchestra and her West Coast jazz trio “For Malala” dedicated to Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai. Seattle’s Northwest Symphony Orchestra premiered the piece.
Commissions started coming in from numerous directions. Tonooka and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu composed and collaborated on “Mother, Skin, Name, Mother” during the pandemic, which premiered at the Harlem Museum of Jazz in 2021. A Doris Duke Creative Inflections Grant brought Tonooka and Shyu back together for the multi-disciplinary music production “In the Green Room: Layering Legacies of Asian and Black American Women in Jazz,” which premiered in 2022 at the Asia Society in New York City with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Linda May Han Oh.
Tonooka’s musical journey included intensive training at the Manne School of Music as a teenager. But a close encounter with a jazz genius had already set her on her path. “My parents took me to see Monk at the Aqua Lounge when I was 13,” Tonooka recalls. “It was because of his music that I wanted to be a jazz musician. Mary Lou Williams was a teacher of mine, not for long, but at a pivotal time. The depth of her spirit and musicianship was very profound for me.”
Graduating from high school several years early, she lit out for Boston at 15 and found creative sustenance with two legendary piano teachers, Margaret Chaloff (mentor to Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Steve Kuhn) and Charlie Banacos (a Lennie Tristano disciple and jazz sage). After paying dues on the Boston scene she moved briefly to Detroit, where she made her recording debut with trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave, an invaluable mentor for generations of Motown jazz musicians.
On her return to Philadelphia, Belgrave encouraged Tonooka to hook up with powerhouse tenor saxophonist Odean Pope. By 17, she was working steadily with her trio featuring drummer Newman Baker and bassist Rudy McDaniel (now Jamaaladeen Tacuma). The group provided an outlet for her prolific composing, and led to an almost two-year stint with drum great Philly Joe Jones, “which was quite an initiation,” she says. “I was really green and he was good in terms of being generous with his musical expertise and getting me thinking more about rhythm.”
Gigs with the cream of the Philly scene followed, including Sonny Fortune, Bootsie Barnes and Robin and Kevin Eubanks. By the time she made the move to New York City in 1983 Tonooka was ready. She quickly gained attention as a major new voice, performing at festivals and making her recording debut as a leader on With an Open Heart (Radiant Records), an acclaimed 1990 trio session with bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Akira Tana focusing on her luminous originals.
Tana and Reid were also on hand for 1991’s Taking Time (Candid), with rising saxophonist Craig Handy. Piano great Kenny Barron produced another Tonooka trio session with Reid and Nash, Secret Places (Joken Records), and it’s no coincidence that Reid was on hand again for 2005’s Long Ago Today and 2009’s quartet date, Initiation with tenor saxophonist and Alchemy Sound Project colleague Erica Lindsay.
Alchemy will soon release its fourth album featuring Tonooka’s “Under the Surface” suite. Even in an art form where it’s not unusual for veteran masters to experience extended bursts of creativity, Tonooka is burning extraordinarily brightly in just about every possible setting, from solo recitals to symphonic premieres. A jazz seeker at the peak of her powers, she’s expanding the art form and opening up new territory for peers to explore.