Jazz musician Sumi Tonooka has composed “For Malala,” dedicated to 18-year-old Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, which will be heard for the first time at a Feb. 12 concert by Northwest Symphony Orchestra.
Jazz pianist Sumi Tonooka has been living quietly in Seattle for more than three years, but she is in the spotlight this month — not for swinging jazz trio improvisation, which she does quite well, but for a new orchestral composition.
The piece is titled “For Malala” and is dedicated to 18-year-old Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by a Taliban terrorist and nearly killed in 2012, for encouraging women to go to school.
“She is the real deal, a real heroine,” said Tonooka of Yousafzai in a phone interview earlier this week. “We have so few, especially that age.”
Northwest Symphony Orchestra: World premiere of ‘For Malala’ by Sumi Tonooka
7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, at the Highline Performing Arts Center, 401 S. 152nd St., Burien; $10-$15 (206-242-6321 or northwestsymphonyorchestra.org).
Pre-concert lecture by Tonooka and composer Samuel Jones at 6:30 p.m.
“For Malala” grew out of a project Tonooka did for the American Composers Orchestra, “Full Circle,” performed in New York in 2013. The conductor there liked the piece so much he suggested she pitch it to his friend Anthony Spain, music director of the Northwest Symphony Orchestra. Spain decided “Full Circle” might require too much rehearsal time, so he asked Tonooka to write another piece. “For Malala” is the happy result.
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The world premiere is Friday (Feb. 12), at the Highline Performing Arts Center, in Burien. The piece is part of the orchestra’s “Season of Local Women Composers.”
“For Malala” features a hefty wind section, four percussion, strings and jazz piano trio. Tonooka will perform the piano part, with Michael Glynn (bass) and Max Wood (drums).
The composition develops a lovely melody for the winds, with active piano accompaniment, moves into an improvised trio section, then returns to full orchestra.
“I wanted to bring the orchestra into my world,” said Tonooka, “With the original piece (in New York), I felt like I was bringing myself into the orchestra world, because they didn’t use a rhythm section. How can you call it a jazz piece if it doesn’t have a rhythm section and improvisation?”
Though she is known in the jazz world as a trio player, Tonooka has written extensively for orchestra, including 20 film scores. Lately, she has been so swept into composing she’s ready to get back to jazz.
“At our rehearsal today,” she said, “I was just like, ‘Hey, let’s play some tunes!’ ”
Tonooka (pronounced to-NO-ka) was influenced early on by Thelonious Monk — her mother took her to see Monk on her 13th birthday — as well as Mary Lou Williams, whom she studied with as a 19-year-old. Her percussive, animated style lights up numerous, well-reviewed jazz albums. “Long Ago Today” (2005) is particularly fine.
Raised in Philadelphia and a veteran of scenes in Boston and New York, Tonooka moved to Seattle “looking to make a change.” She also had roots here. Her mother, Emiko Tonooka, was born on Bainbridge Island and forced, along with Sumi Tonooka’s grandparents, into internment camps during World War II.
But it was her grade-school friend Sharon Lee, executive director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, who invited her out west.
“I took her up on the invite, and I’m still here,” said Tonooka, “though I’m still sort of straddling both coasts. I teach back there sometimes, and go back twice a year to keep contacts alive.”
If she stays in the area, you are sure to be hearing more from her, whether it’s in jazz clubs or in the concert hall.