Wednesday 22 April 2015

Allison Au Quartet uses Jazz Room gig to prepare for the studio

TORONTO ---- When the Allison Au Quartet plays The Jazz Room in Waterloo it will be the last time the contemporary group records its new collection of compositions in front of an audience before heading into the studio next week to record its second CD.

"This is kind of our workshop one more time , play all of the tunes, and then we are going to go into the studio next week," Au said in an interview with New City Notes.

Au's Quartet plays Saturday night. The cover: $18. The new CD should have nine new compositions, and be released in the fall.

"I think the band has developed since our last album, we have really matured and my writing has changed," Au said.  "It has taken its own course of finding new pathways.  I would say with this album I have pushed myself to explore different templates in terms of composition, and get the ensemble to explore different sounds as well."

Their first recording, The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey, was nominated for a 2015 Juno Award as best contemporary jazz CD. Au's Quartet did not win, but the nomination underscored the band's reputation as a new creative force on the modern jazz scene. (

"That was crazy, so unexpected," Au said of the Juno nomination.  "In fact, I wasn't even going to submit my album for consideration."

Au plays the alto sax. The rest of the quartet includes Todd Pentney on piano, Jon Maharaj on  bass and Fabio Ragnelli on drums. Pentney and Ragnelli met Au at Humber. Maharaj attended the University of Toronto, and started jamming with Au after mutual friends introduced them.

"We went to the awards ceremony, so that was a really great experience to meet some musicians there," Au said.  "It was thrilling, it was really exciting."

The 29-year-old saxophonist, composer and arranger  tries to focus on melody when writing new material.

"I don't necessarily always think it's jazz because a lot of my music doesn't even have the swing component," Au said.  "A lot of my music does, but often there are quite a few songs that are just very open in how I approach. I don't consider it jazz per se.  But there are elements of improvisation in everything. So I think there is that common thread."

While contemporary classical music is a big influence on her composing and approach to harmony, the instrumentation is jazz.

"The role everyone plays in the ensemble is very much drawn from jazz," Au said. "So I guess in a nutshell, jazz with a lot of contemporary influences, as well as from Latin music."

Born and raised in Toronto, Au was raised in a home with a huge collection of records and CDs.  She would accompany her dad to regular trips to Same the Record Man on Yonge Street.  Music was always on in the house - jazz, blues, Motown, funk, rhythm & blues, opera, classical, Leonard Cohen and Ry Cooder, Jimmy Cliff, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole. among many others.

Growing up Au perused the massive, colourful collection in the living room of her family home in Toronto, pulling out individual recordings to admire the cover designs.

"As a kid when I listened to jazz specifically I always heard an energy in it, it just sounded like so much fun.  Music, more of a broader spectrum, was always played in the house by my parents for social occasions and parties and stuff," Au said. "It was always like a fun thing."

"And jazz specifically spoke to me on a different level because it sounded like, I don't know, I just related to it," Au said.  "There seemed to be a like a freedom within it, an energy I felt like I wanted to emulate in some way.  At an early age I didn't quite know what it was, but I always wanted to copy those people.

"And I didn't know what I was copying, but something drew me to it," Au said.

Among her early influences - Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn.

"They just had a warmth in their voice that sounded very welcoming, it was like home almost," Au said.

She studied jazz at Humber College, graduating in 2008.

"It was a really great experience, it's so varied with their musical styles.  So I have the opportunity to play a lot of different genres of music and expose me to a lot of different settings and ensemble sizes as well.  I did some big band things, and then some small jazz combo stuff, so it was a really nice mix.  I thought the variety was really cool," Au said.

The Allison Au Quartet was formed in 2009.

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