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Music Review: Erica Lindsay and Sumi Tonooka – Initiation

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When pianist Sumi Tonooka and saxophonist Erica Lindsay mesh notes on Initiation, there’s a whole lot more than a simple rite of passage going on. These two musicians, joined by the late and sublimely great Bob Braye on drums and Rufus Reid on bass, construct dynamic strips of soulful jazz without a tinge of pretense.

Lindsay and Tonooka have been playing together since they first met in 1994, but this record marks their first in-studio collaboration and it’s a doozy. Coated with Trane-like spirituality and raw swing, Initiation builds on the pair’s collaborations at Justin’s in Albany and creates a solidified epic of build, timing and poise.

Lindsay’s tenor is the “vocalist” of the record, pushing through engaging melodies with a freedom of form and movement seldom heard. She is a working class player, serving as a faculty member at Bard College and performing with several other groups including the Jeff Siegel Quartet and San Francisco’s Trace Elements.

Tonooka is the philosophical core. Her playing provides more than just support and she is more than capable of bursting forth with a string of impactful block chords or a chunky, deliberate solo. Tonooka tours as part of a sextet that includes Gerald Veasley and John Blake Jr.

A lot of Tonooka’s playing is rhythm-based, so the way she melts together with Braye’s drums deserves special notice. Both offer slinky support on the sleek “Serpent’s Tale.”

“Mingus Mood” finds Lindsay’s sax leading the way with bold, slow proclamations. She tags the ends of each note with soulful shrewdness, allowing for a fluid, gauzy experience that naturally evolves into a beautiful piece of thoughtful music punctuated by a smooth Tonooka solo.

The solemnity of “The Gift” furthers the contemplation of the performers. Braye, who passed away the January following Initiation’s recording date, uses gentle mallet work and light touches of cymbals to add texture to Tonooka’s celebration of her mother’s life.

There’s a lot of emotion tucked into Initiation and, after a few listens, it stands out as quite a powerful record. There’s a sense of freedom to it, even in some of the more structured moments, and it feels as though Lindsay and Tonooka’s album becomes something that not only allows them room to grieve and celebrate, but something that allows us to do so too.

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