Thursday, July 5, 2012

Piano Solo X 3

For the past 2 decades, Sumi Tonooka has built a busy career as a bandleader, composer, collaborator (with saxophonist Erica Lindsay), band member (most notably with violinist John Blake) and as an educator. "Now", a 2-CD set released on the ARC label (of which she is a partner), is her first solo recording (and first to be funded as a Kickstarter project.)  Ms. Tonooka calls the disk as "sonic snapshot" as the CDs feature the entirety of a concert she gave in the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon NY (the CD cover lists 2 dates, March 22, 2010 and March 22, 2011).

12 tracks spread over 81 minutes and the pianist covers a lot of musical territory (1st CD is standards, the 2nd is all originals, save the closing track.)  She pays tribute to her mentors and influences on pieces such as the "Mary Lou Williams Medley" (Ms. Tonooka displays a wicked left hand during the "Waltz Boogie" section of the performance), Thelonious Monk's "Evidence" (quite a playful take, with several tempo changes) and her original "Mingus Mood" (a dark ballad with a strong blues feel.)  On my first several times through the CD, I could hear the influence of Charles Mingus in Ms. Tonooka's take on Duke Ellington's "Heaven" (from "The Sacred Concerts") but, for the most part, she transcends her influences.  The pianist is supremely melodic yet does not shy away from darker colors in her harmonic choices.  "Phantom Carousel", an original that opens the second set, displays storm clouds in the chords but has a melody line that often rises high above the dusky foundation.  There's a bit of Abdullah Ibrahim (one of her acknowledged influences) in the dancing left hand work of "Moroccan Daze"; one is also struck by the insistent rhythmic drive of the original work.  The program closes with a delightful jaunt through Eubie Blake's "I'm Confessin'" and, if this playful performance doesn't tickle your fancy, don't know what will.

Playful, melodic, intelligent, emotionally rich (all of the above), "Now" sounds great with the windows open, the sounds of the birds in the morning competing for your attention.  Perhaps, later in the evening, sitting on the porch watching the fireflies illumine the back yard. Sumi Tonooka picked a very good night for her first solo endeavor - methinks she has many "very good nights." For more information, go to

Over the course of his career (which now spans nearly 5 decades), Dr. Denny Zeitlin (a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California/San Fransisco as well as a practicing psychiatrist) has released a number of solo piano Lps and CDs - in fact, "Wherever You Are: Midnight Moods for Solo Piano", is his 3rd unaccompanied recording in less than 2 years for the Sunnyside label.    Before you start accusing the pianist of overkill, the CDs are different in many respects (material, pacing, recording venues) - what they have in common is the excellent musicianship and fertle mind of an artist who never compromises his ideals.

What is different with the new recording is that the program consists entirely of ballads. The good doctor also produced and engineered the sessions plus worked on the mixing and mastering.  The material consists of a medley of 2 pieces by Antonio Carlos Jobim, 2 originals and 7 standards.  Zeitlin is masterful as he handles oft-recorded pieces such as Bobby Troup's "The Meaning of the Blues" and "Body and Soul", songs some of us have probably heard live and recorded dozens of times.  Yet, nothing is what you'd expect other than the pianist will explore avenues others have never thought to use. He never abandons the melody but his harmonies are often surprising while he will slip into (and out of) a rhythmic pattern so naturally it make take you a moment to notice. There is a majesty and wistfulness to Gordon Jenkins' "Last Night When We Were Young"  that is breathtaking.  Zeitlin first recorded his original "Time Remembers One Time Once" with bassist Charlie Haden in 1983; it's a tender piece with a single-note lines that often resolve in chords, pulling the listener in as the music moves forward. The title track, first recorded in 1984 as a quartet setting with guitarist John Abercrombie, is a gentle work with more glorious harmonies.

"Wherever You Are" is indeed an album of "Midnight Moods" yet this is not dark nor foreboding music.  Instead, Denny Zeitlin aims for the heart of the listener by finding the emotional center of each song and creating his own world.  Sit with someone you love or by yourself and allow this music to take you away from the humdrum, from the apparent darkness of the everyday world and into a much quieter place.  For more information, go to

Pianist Russ Lossing entered the studio in March of 2011 and recorded the 10 tracks on his new CD, "Drum Music: Music of Paul Motian" (Sunnyside Records).  The pianist had worked and recorded with the drummer (who passed in November of 2011) on numerous occasions over the past 15 years, playing all of the material that makes up this program.  Those listeners familiar with Motian's work, especially his music with Joe Lovano and Bill Frissell, know that the drummer/composer had no use for clutter or filigree, going straight to the heart of his music.  To his credit, Lossing plays pieces from throughout Motian's long career, opening the program with "Conception Vessel", the title track of the drummer's 1972 ECM debut.  One canj hear the influence of Motian's employer at the time, Keith Jarrett, in the song's long-flowing lines and rolling rhythms.  "It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago", a composition that dates from 1985, juxtaposes sound and silence in such a way that the melody line as well as the tension is heightened throughout the 8+ minutes.  "Gang of Five" starts inside the piano, the dampened strings and sustained notes slowly giving way to the exquisite melody that moves like a person lost in thought walking unaware through crowded streets.

"Mumbo Jumbo" moves forward with purpose on a rolling left hand while "Dance" sounds like a work for a modern choreographer, the rapid right hand melody darting about the strident and striding left hand. The title track is much more melodic than percussive; although the version Motian recorded with Jason Moran and Chris Potter for 2010's "Lost In A Dream" opens with a drum solo, Lossing moves right into the melody line and builds the piece from there, building the intensity and speed as the song flies forward.

Throughout "Drum Music", one is acutely aware of how Paul Motian, the composer, communicated his ideas in his originals.  Many of these pieces move in unexpected directions yet never seem foreign or forced.  What one might think of as simplicity in Motian's drumming or melodic ideas or, for that fact, in his approach towards the standards he played so often is anything but.  The drummer/composer enjoyed melody and eschewed "showing off his chops" - Russ Lossing, an excellent technician, plays with purpose and not "for show".  He pays homage to Paul Motian by making these pieces his own, making the melodies and rhythmic ideas stand out.  As with Denny Zeitlin's "Wherever You Are", "Drum Music" should be listened to at night, in a dimly lit room, with no distractions.  There is beauty in the softer passages, power in the more intense moments and heightened sense of creativity at all times.  For more information, go to

Russ Lossing celebrates the 7/17/12 release of this CD with a performance Friday July 13 at Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City.  Joining him will be bassist Drew Gress and drummer Eric McPherson. For more information, go to

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