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Allison Au strives for perfection, but embraces imperfection

Allison Au will give audiences a sneak peek of her upcoming album when she appears at Merrickville's Jazz Fest on October 18.

Saxophonist Allison Au brings her quartet (including pianist Todd Pentney) and new music to Merrickville's jazz fest on October 18 ©Brett Delmage, 2015The Toronto alto saxophonist and composer's first CD – a mixture of melodic and transparently multi-layered originals – was nominated for a Juno for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2013. Au says the her second, to be released this fall, will continue in the same accessible style, but with some new keyboard sounds.

“We use a lot of Rhodes. We used one piece with a [Hammond] B3 organ in the last album, but we've tried to incorporate more in this album. And Todd [Pentney] being the keyboard player, he's added some synth overdubs in the new album as well. I'm trying to experiment more with the production side of what a jazz album could be.”

There might be a bit more groove, too, she says, and she's tried “to make the pieces a bit more cohesive and have more consistent themes throughout, like writing one complete piece.”

“I think I wanted to stretch the template of a quartet instrumentation. So with the keyboards I can add a different colour. And I'm just trying to play with those colours in a way that I didn't really have a chance to with the first album.

The Merrickville show, on the Sunday afternoon, will be predominantly material from the new album plus possibly a few standards – and a new arrangement she is currently working on. “I'm trying to create a lot of variety.”

Having her musicians' sounds in her head as she composes

Au will be performing with her long-time quartet, which has been together since 2009. They're an important part of her carefully-polished music: they've helped her rework her compositions, sometimes over several years.

In her first album, she said, she tried to engage her other band members “to contribute their own two cents – how they feel the piece should finish or if we should revise some parts. So I've tried to nurture that dynamic and if anything there's maybe even more group collaboration in these ones, the new repertoire.”

Au met pianist Todd Pentney and drummer Fabio Ragnelli while they were all studying together at Humber College from 2004-8, and bassist Jon Maharaj shortly thereafter. All three also play in a wide variety of other Toronto jazz groups.

Ottawa audiences most recently heard Au and Pentney together here in July, when they performed in a well-received, two-night tribute to Herbie Hancock's music at Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge.

By this point, Au said, she's often writing for these specific musicians. “A lot of my music now is really written for the guys in my band. I have their sound in my head. Duke Ellington did stuff like that, like really writing for the musicians in his ensemble. I can understand why he would do that because it's such a strong pull. If you have someone's sound, you can really write a part that you can almost envision them playing it.”

And then rehearsing the music with the quartet refines it: “oftentimes I write sections and we end up changing things in rehearsals anyway, so even what I intended ends up being performed in a different expression.”

I listened a lot to Gil Evans, all his writing for Miles Davis' work [for example, Porgy and Bess]. Some of his music has actually made me cry a lot. It has really moved me in a way that I haven't felt with a lot of other types of music.
– Allison Au

Three consecutive winter Creative Music residencies at the renowned Banff Centre, from 2011-13, helped cement that link. The residencies (nine days the first year, and two weeks the following years) were essentially extended workshopping sessions in which the band could rehearse and have a concentrated work period, she said.

They could ask for guidance from whichever jazz faculty were resident at the time – in their case, Italian saxophone player Mirko Guerrini one year, and pianist Stefano Bollani another year – and have them critique rehearsals or jam sessions, or conduct informal coaching sessions.

“That was an incredible experience. I feel like that was the most valuable in our overall group development. Just the idea of having a non-interrupted time to work. We had two or three sessions a day which we would never have in Toronto with all our busy schedules.”

While she did some composing, she said the group spent the majority of their time rehearsing and workshopping new music that she had written before. “A lot of editing and tweaking sections or cutting stuff or rewriting parts and then coming back to the rehearsal and trying out whatever I just changed. A lot of that music ended up being on the [first] album and on the one that's coming out.”

One of those sessions added a completely new voice to the title track of her first CD, The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey, which closes that album. “We had been toying with the idea of using some kind of sound effect just to add a different texture. That piece is really different from the other ones just in terms of the sound template that we were experimenting with. We did choose it to be one that stood out but as we were rehearsing it we were trying some sound effects, we also got into some voice-overs.”

The quartet had been working with Toronto bassist Dan Fortin, since Maharaj couldn't attend that session, and Fortin found a series of sound clips featuring 20th-century composer John Cage, talking about how creating music is an intrusion on reality.

Au said they added those sound clips after the music was done. “We just felt when we heard it, it just fit . The piece just started to feel more complete. But I had written the first and the second sections already and we had been rehearsing that.”

However, when they play the piece live, the clips are usually left out: “It would be so cool but we just haven't had a chance to coordinate that.”

Au said she also wanted to ensure all the voices in the band were clearly heard in her albums. She credited that to Pentney, who produced her first album and is currently mixing and producing the second.

Emphasizing a melodic, accessible feel

She said she also hoped the melodic feel of the first album would also come through in the second. She wrote the material on her first album mostly after she left Humber, over the course of two years. For this second album, it's been about a three-year process of gradual refinement.

“I honestly don't think my writing process or the general sound of my music has dramatically changed that much. I just feel like I'm trying to look for new melodies or ideas within my process that already exists. Just trying to stretch myself within those ways. But I do try to put an emphasis on melody and the group playing dynamic as well, so trying to involve everyone in a way that compliments the piece.”

The new album (which doesn't yet have a title) was recorded in April, and is expected to be released at the end of October, just missing Merrickville. The quartet will tour it in the United States and western Canada in February and March.

Au has deftly found her feet in the Toronto music scene, playing at times in everything from Latin merengue bands to even wedding gigs. She said that made her more aware of “what the objective listener finds accessible. And not to say that I want to cater to that, but I have tried to be aware of what that is."

“That could possibly be the result of I've been playing with a wedding band recently the last few years, strictly jobbing music, which is great for coin and everything but it has brought to my attention what people dance to. And if we think of what jazz was in its original form, it was dance music. And again not to say that I want to make all my songs electronic dance music [laughs] or anything like that, but it has changed my perspective a little bit. I think I'm still writing in the same vein but I've tried to bring a different awareness to my music.”

At shows, she also tries to let audiences know more about the music. “I do try harder to communicate more to the audience, as much as I can, just to let them in and see the process that happened to choose those pieces.”

At the Herbie Hancock tribute at Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge, “I was trying to give some insight to the tunes, or at least the titles, the period that it was composed in. But Herbie is a composer I just really, really admire just for his diversity and the range of pieces he has written as well. And it's something I aspire to, and I think maybe me communicating that to the audience, or at least simply stating the year it was composed, is a reinforcer in my mind as well: 'Oh yes, this is so amazing that he did this.' It's reminding myself as I'm telling the audience as well.”

Getting hooked by Ella Fitzgerald's scatting on “Mack the Knife”

Au grew up in a house with lots of records around. “My Dad is a very avid music listener. And he always had a lot of music playing. Quite a diverse collection. He has a lot of vinyl, but he also has a large CD collection. So as we were kids, he was constantly playing random stuff from classical music to blues, and jazz was definitely in the rotation. He had lots of stuff playing, like Louis Armstrong and a lot of vocalists, like Sarah Vaughan as well. Nat King Cole.”

But it was an Ella Fitzgerald recording – “Mack the Knife”, from the Ella in Berlin album – that really hooked her. “She did a really long scat solo and I'd never really heard anything like that before. And I was totally obsessed with that recording – I remember that really clearly!”

Early on, she said, she saw another girl playing a saxophone, which made her feel “like I could do it too”.

“I knew I liked the sound of jazz. I think the saxophone was a thing that pulled me in to think that I could maybe participate in some way. And seeing a girl play was also a really big influence for me.”

In middle school, her band teacher started all the students on alto sax, and she just stuck to that instrument. “Alto seems to be now the right size for me. I find it's a very physical connection with the instrument as well. It seems like it's my fit.”

Even in my music, I know it's never completed. And I just try to embrace that idea in that every time it's going to be different and every time we play, it's going to feel different.
– Allison Au

At Humber, she studied with saxophonists Kelly Jefferson, Andy Ballantyne, and Pat LaBarbera. Jefferson was a “great introduction”, she said, and she recently went back on a study grant for further lessons with him. Ballantyne taught her about composing and arranging for larger-scale projects, including for musical theatre, while LaBarbera provided her with a “history lesson almost – think about all the guys that he's played with!” More recently, she said, Toronto alto saxophonist Toronto saxophonist Tara Davidson has been a major role model.

During that time, Au also fell in love with writing for larger ensembles. “I listened a lot to the Mingus Big Band and Gil Evans, all his writing for Miles Davis' work [for example, Porgy and Bess]. Some of his music has actually made me cry a lot. It has really moved me in a way that I haven't felt with a lot of other types of music.”

She followed up that interest by attending an arrangers' workshop in Holland with Vince Mendoza and The Metropole Orkest in 2011, where she arranged a piece for vocalist Roberta Gambarini. More recently, she's arranged for and played in a large improvising ensemble run by Toronto saxophonist Kyle Brenders, called The Massey Hall Jazz Band. In August, that band performed with jazz vocalist Emile-Claire Barlow and singer-songwriter Bry Webb.

That big band experience has also helped her with organizing her own work in her quartet, she said, in terms of communicating clearly, being pragmatic, and not wasting time.

Au also likes to keep a sense of exploration and discovery in her work.

“I think I've accepted the fact that I was never a child prodigy kind of player and technique is something I always strive to get better at. So I know I'm not one of those crazy technical types of players, and so I try to embrace that imperfection. And, even in my music, I know it's never completed. And I just try to embrace that idea in that every time it's going to be different and every time we play, it's going to feel different. And just knowing that fact in itself is going to be every time a discovery.”

In fact, she said, sometimes she enjoys hearing a rawer sound when musicians make mistakes. “I think it adds character to a lot of the bands that I like to listen to.”

    – Alayne McGregor

The Allison Au Quartet performs at 3:00 pm on Sunday October 18, 2015 in the Merrickville United Church. Tickets, and passes, and more information are available on the website of Merrickville's Jazz Fest

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