For those and other reasons I found it difficult to understand why Allison Au is not better known than she is, although I know – am sure – that she is a huge deal among other musicians no matter what time and place, and the cognoscenti at large; and that includes the very knowledgeable Canadian and American listener. The airy nature of her playing, articulate voice, her tone and manner and the group dynamic that she engenders among the musicians she plays with is exemplified by her exuberant work with pianist Todd Pentney, bassist Jon Maharaj and drummer, Fabio Ragnelli. This might account for her ability to attract younger audiences in the United States, for instance, as well as retain the older audiences wherever she travels and performs. If only she had travelled more widely to spread the gospel of music as written by her and performed by her quartet (which has expanded to a quintet when the ineffably beautiful vocalastics of Felicity Williams are added on). Happily Miss Williams is more visible on Forest Grove, the 2015 recording by Allison Au and her quartet plus Felicity Williams.
On her second album, Forest Grove which features a somewhat different repertoire from The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey Miss Au’s sense of drama is heightened and perfectly matched by her razor-sharp sense of where she belongs in the world of sound. Nowhere is it more vivid and audible as when she weaves in and out of Todd Pentney’s visceral playing on “Tumble”. Miss Au has talked about sharing her music and “workshopping” it extensively with Mr Pentney and other members of her ensemble. Clearly this is a practice that has worked marvellously, especially so on “Tumble”. The masterly conversation between Miss Au and Mr Pentney is truly worthy of an epic musical adventure that is shared with all members of the expedition, but more so with the pianist. On “Tumble” it begins as Miss Au plies her art alongside Mr. Pentney’s piano. What a magnificent, soaring dialogue born of Mr. Pentney’s superb narration of the back story, aided and abetted by Miss Au, as the rest of the band pick up the cue from the pianist’s fingers on the ebony and ivory. “Tumble” awakes like great gusts of wind in a powerful hurricane. Then…silence…
Later, although you have heard Felicity Williams on “Bolero” and “The Clearing” there is little that can prepare you for “They Say We Are Not Here”. Before that the whispering of the 1-2… 1-2-3 splash across the cymbals… Fabio Ragnelli is caressing and back-slapping the skins of his toms and tympani. He repeats some memorable phrases in a cycle then he crunches the high-hat. Nobody moves… except Felicity Williams, as she slides into position to usher in her vocalastic act. Then she wails with the band, and the song “They Say We Are Not Here”. Back in 2015 when I first heard the song I remember the tears were streaming down my face. This had much to do with Miss Williams’ ability to breathe life into her wordless vocals. But none of that would matter if it were not for the aching beauty of the music itself. Unashamed am I and moved by it all again as I was preparing to meet Allison Au. This is as close to the perfect knot of emotion that will ever grab hold of my gut I recall thinking over and over again. Somehow I seem to get this way when I listen to the ineffable voices of Miss Au and the ensemble on this breathtakingly beautiful song.
Jon Maharaj and Fabio Ragnelli are tugging at notes, now… as Miss Williams resuming regular breathing, takes a break from it all. Meanwhile Allison Au meets and caresses the notes, phrases, lines… He has invited them halfway inside her proverbially perceptive guts, caressing them and now she tosses them in broad glissandos—soft-loud… loud-soft—then a fast arpeggio, as she seems to lick her lips. Hands flutter and flash on the alto saxophone’s buttons and on strings, skins, cymbals and keyboards. Mr. Ragnelli is particularly astute and on song! Allison Au is remembering the way things were and are in and around Forest Grove. Her lips are caressing the saxophone’s reed and, indeed its precious mouthpiece. Her playing though inquisitive and searching is many-splendoured. Felicity Williams sounds especially poignant, and so does Miss Au: her dazzling asides pierce her mindstream like bolts of pure sunshine. Meanwhile Felicity Williams lets the wordless lyrical line leap to each new stop. Allison Au breaks in suddenly. She lets out a series of ululations and shrieks; then a long and winding shriek. Finally she tosses a wild one upward. It flies out of the bell of the horn and into the air spinning like a top and dissipates softly in its after-burn.
Allison Au is preparing to wow the festival circuit with performances at the 2017 edition of the Toronto Jazz Festival before gracing The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in early July. I am saddened by the fact that I will miss her performances both in Toronto and in Montréal as well. I take comfort in the fact that I have inhabited her music again, as preparation for our meeting, and even as I write this I have Forest Grove playing with the volume turned uncharacteristically higher than usual. Miss Au’s music is “tumbling” out of my giant speakers. As Mr. Pentney’s riff at the end of the piece slows the melody down to a lazy stroll, I can’t help wondering what new delights Allison Au will bring to the stage this year as she “workshops” her new music with her ubiquitous pianist, bassist and drummer. More than anything, however, I feel the heated activity of Allison Au and her ensemble already. I will keep my ears out for the new and the old, at once made new as well. Already I hear melodies beginning to radiate from the bell of Allison Au’s alto saxophone like coronas emerging from the nuclear furnace of the sun. Allison Au has elevated the saxophone from the nightclub to the concert hall. Or, in other words, she simply put it back where Adolphe Sax had always intended it to be.
We exit the coffee shop. I walk with her to her car; then proceed to mine a few yards up the road. Unlocking the passenger-side door to put down my writing pad, CDs, micro-recorder and mobile phone and I have a sudden urge to look up. Above me at 12 o’clock bearing right I catch the sight of a flight of ducks, silhouetted against the blushing sky…
Allison Au in her own words