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Allison Au Quartet's original music warmly received at MJF

The Allison Au Quartet
Merrickville's Jazz Fest
Merrickville United Church
Sunday, October 18, 2015 – 3 p.m.

View photos of The Allison Au Quartet at MJF 2015

Performing in Merrickville United Church is like theatre in the round – the band is almost surrounded on three sides by an audience above them. It's a daunting expanse to play to.

In '2601' Au evoked grieving and incredible loss through her combination of instrumental voices, without letting the music become bathetic, and still keeping a touch of hope at the end ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Toronto saxophonist Allison Au and her quartet easily filled that space and more in their mid-afternoon concert at Merrickville's Jazz Fest. Playing pieces from the quartet's upcoming album, plus two standards, they fully captured the audience's attention with their melodic and finely interlaced music.

The quartet's first album, a collection of accessible and transparently multi-layered originals written by Au, was nominated for a Juno in 2013. Its new album, also composed by Au, is already recorded and will be released in February.

Three of the four members of the band – Au on alto sax, Todd Pentney on keyboards, and Jon Maharaj on bass – were present for the Merrickville concert, joined by drummer Ethan Ardelli. Ardelli is well-known on the Toronto jazz scene, playing with Nancy Walker, Mike Downes, and Jane Bunnett. He also played for several years in the host band for the Ottawa jazz festival jams.

What they played was very much an evolution, rather than a major change in direction, from their first CD. “Aureole”, their opening number, was definitely in the same voice as before, and again very much a group effort. Opening with nuanced rhythms and long, evolving lines on saxophone, it was an upbeat and intriguing introduction to Au's music. In particular, the piece was driven by Ardelli's hard-edged drumming. He added a consistently strong pulse to the group's sound.

The next piece, “Orange”, was a ballad featuring a duet between Au's evocative, slow alto and Pentney's romantic piano – clear and thoughtful with accents. It reminded me of floating down a river with a few eddies along the way, and had lots of forward momentum without being obvious about it.

Au described “Bolero” as a “ballad of sorts”. It was inspired by two of her music teachers at Humber College: pianist Hilario Duran and guitarist Luis Mario Ochoa, and, unsurprisingly, showed a strong Latin influence. After a quiet sax/piano introduction, Maharaj took over on bass, refining a subtle riff and then further developing the melody – a fine and nuanced performance.

Billy Strayhorn wrote “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” in tribute to his physician – and, despite the title, it's a serious bop piece. The quartet made the most of its tap-dancing rhythms with their happy portrayal, first smoothly rolling out the melody and then increasing the speed to double-time while keeping the smooth feel. Then Ardelli started trading fours alternately with Au and Pentney, the speed and intensity increasing after every short section each of them played – before Au pulled out and ended the song smoothly and with style.

The jazz standard “Lover” was recorded as an instrumental by John Coltrane and sung by Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee – among many others. No surprise: it has a melody and overall feel that immediately grab the listener – and allow lots of room for variations and experimentation by musicians. The quartet played it fast and energetically, again trading fours near the end and going all-out.

The mood changed abruptly for Au's composition “2601”. It was a tribute to her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor; “2601” was the number which the Nazis tattooed on his arm in the concentration camps. It began with deep, sober bass notes from Maharaj, followed by a long, reflective sax solo underlaid by strong piano chords and the occasional more complicated figure. The music became more ominous, with circling sax lines, before resolving back to a reflective bass solo, followed by quiet piano, and finally an extended melancholy sax line. It ended quietly with a few muted notes on cymbals. This piece particularly impressed me because of how Au evoked grieving and incredible loss through her combination of instrumental voices, without letting the music become bathetic, and still keeping a touch of hope at the end.

The quartet closed with “Flee Fly”, an fast, upbeat piece with a funky feel and alternating emphatic passages from each musician, ending the show on a sunny note.

Despite these tunes being mostly new to the Merrickville audience, they were warmly received, with people looking absorbed in the music throughout. I think one reason was that Au arranged her pieces carefully, varying the mood and feel to keep each piece distinguishable and interesting. Her compositions also showed off her musicians' abilities while giving them room to experiment and contribute to the overall sound. The Allison Au Quartet's show was a good example of how mainstream jazz can speak to a larger audience, without losing its individuality.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set list (all compositions by Allison Au unless otherwise noted):

  • Aureole
  • Orange
  • Bolero
  • Delusion
  • Upper Manhattan Medical Group (by Billy Strayhorn)
  • Spark
  • You Ordinary Stranger
  • Lover (by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart)
  • 2601
  • Flee Fly

View photos of The Allison Au Quartet at MJF 2015

Read's reviews of concerts at the 2015 Merrickville's Jazz Fest, and interviews with musicians appearing at the festival, linked to from our main festival article:

Read's interview with Allison Au: