As one who continually follows as much local music as possible, especially young artists on the rise, young composer/saxophonist, Allison Au, nearly eluded me.
It was a second Juno in 2016 (Jazz Album of the Year – Forest Grove) that got me inquiring and searching out Au. There were no front-page stories, or entertainment scoops, just a player going about the business of recreating and creating original music both live and in the recording studio.
Au first drew attention when she captured a Juno in the Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year Category in 2012 for The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey. Since then, she has quietly gone about the business of perfecting and expanding her sense of art. Last week she added to the mantelpiece of prestigious awards the 36th TD Grand Jazz Award at the Festival du Jazz du Montreal of which her group was selected best of eight other jazz ensembles who took part in the pan-Canadian competition.
What the TD Grand Jazz Award comes with a $5,000 grant, from TD; the opportunity to present a free concert on the TD Stage; an invitation to take part in the 2018 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, and Festi Jazz International de Rimouski.
The group has also received a TD Jazz Fellowship Scholarship (2011); The Alfred and Phyllis Balm Scholarship (2012); and The Margareta and Benno Nigg Scholarship (2013) to conduct artist residencies at Banff Centre.
“As a composer/arranger, Allison’s work has been featured with Hilario Duran’s Latin Big Band (Canada); Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Roberta Gambarini; Blue Note recording artist Ruben Hein (The Netherlands); The Metropole Orkest (The Netherlands); The WDR Big Band (Germany); and The Filarmonica 900 del Teatro Regio and Torino Jazz Orchestra (Italy).” Bio.
Au dropped the by the house mid-June, hours before performing at TD Jazz Toronto and here’s that conversation.
Your dad’s Chinese and your mother is Jewish.
They met in Toronto. On my mom’s side, they came from Poland after the war (World War 11) and immigrated to Montreal. My dad came from Malaysia via England. He studied in England then came to Toronto to further his studies, and they met in Toronto. My dad was studying medicine, and my mom, nursing and they met at a teaching hospital.
How did music arrive in your life?
I guess music was more prevalent on my mom’s side. My grandmother loves to sing yet no more plays professionally. My dad and his brothers loved listening to vinyl as kids. It was his love of music and lots of CDs that rather permeated through the house.
I was captivated by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nat “King” Cole and Louis Armstrong very early on as a kid. In my teens, it became 90’s R&B vocal groups like SWV and Boyz to Men and unknowingly, Stevie Wonder, because I heard a lot of covers of his tunes, but didn’t know who wrote them until much later.
When I think of how people connect with certain styles of music I’m always curious as to how it finds and inhabits a person’s life. You have a contemporary style some would call jazz, but I think it’s way beyond description. You are not duplicating what has been done in the past although there are artist influences.
I can't pinpoint any one person at the moment. I love listening to so many incredible musicians, but I also currently draw a lot of inspiration from reading and checking out movies and art exhibitions whenever I can. I would say, at the moment, I'm trying to expand my horizons by absorbing other arts.
I studied through high school and did my post-secondary at Humber College.
Part of how I play is the generation I came up through. I had access to an iPod. It was the way music changed through the medium it was delivered. It changed the way young people listened to music.
My iPod was full of tons of random stuff. I’d listen to a lot of R&B, Hip Hop, and Rap and always had a passion for jazz but never found a way to integrate into my writing until much later. All these influences you pull inevitably as a kid, and through your teens, find a weird way of morphing into to something that becomes your own later. It’s not intentional; it just comes out that way.
Do your compositions spring from your improvisations?
The process for me is at the piano. Often, I’ll be noodling on the piano and find something I like. Other times, I’ll hear a melody and try to sing and transcribe off a recording device. Sometimes I’ll hear something on the radio and try to elaborate or take the idea down another pathway.
At the moment, I listen to a lot of Brazilian music. I love classical music. I love checking out my friends’ bands. I like to follow up on the New York scene and listen to saxophonists playing there.
We try to do as much as we can. We’ve done two tours under the current project, and I’m always trying to find new places to play and meet new people.
What’s the hardest part about being a young musician?
Well, you know that! I tell other people it’s a lifestyle decision and not a job in a conventional sense.
Things are unpredictable when it comes to a schedule from week to week, and I find that inspiring. We have this opportunity not to be tied down to other kinds of work. It keeps things interesting.
The other part is the creative challenge. Finding new sources of inspiration and wanting to pursue the next idea that will spur a new chapter of development.
It can feel exciting then overwhelming. It’s a constant seesaw going back in forth between feeling discouraged about my work, then inspired by others that I work alongside.
You captured a Jazz Juno a couple of years back. Has the award helped you chart your career?
The Juno has been an incredible reminder to work hard, foster creative relationships, and always be kind to others. For me, this is the best career guidance I could have asked to have.
Do you have a five-year plan?
I just want to develop my voice in music and to continue connecting with different people through music.
How did you come to enter the Montreal Jazz Fest competition?
I was invited to participate by the organizers of the Montreal Jazz Fest.
How many performances and days did it go on?
We were involved in one day, with one performance. But I think it went on for five days.
What did you bring home in hardware and other prizes?
An award, cash prize and an invitation to perform again next year.
What kind of performance schedule have you had this summer?
It's been busy, but I've also had lots of down time. All in all a nice balance, and really fun!
Do you book yourself?
Do you have funding support for travel?
Just one performance this summer.