Allison Au is Au-Some

Au cover

FOREST GROVE / AU: Tides. Bolero.* Aureole. The Clearing.* Deluge. Through Light. Tumble. Your Ordinary Stranger. They Say We Are Not Here* / Allison Au Quartet: Au, a-sax; Todd Pentney, pn/Hammond B3/Rhodes/Wurlitzer/synth; Jon Maharaj, bs/el-bs; Fabio Ragnelli, dm; add *Felicity Williams, voice / self-released CD available from the artist at http://www.allisonau.com

Canadian alto saxist Allison Au has been leading her own quartet since 2009, but this is only her second recording. Those expecting just another bird of passage—i.e., another Grace Kelly—are going to be in for a surprise, because Au is a very talented young woman with several skills that the Grace Kellys of the world do not possess, among them a good musical imagination and the ability to write her own material. All of the pieces on this album are originals, and they are all interesting in their own way.

Tides opens up with the leader on alto, playing the unusual melody with a good, hard edge. Her playing reminds me a little of such good ‘50s alto saxists as Sonny Stitt or Phil Woods; like them, she clearly comes out of the lineage of Bird but does not ape him. The rhythm is loose but also quite complex, and although I felt that Ragnelli overplayed his drums somewhat (a familiar weakness among young drummers nowadays, evidently nurtured by rock music) he grasped the odd rhythms quite well. After an electric piano solo by Todd Pentney, Au returns on alto, deconstructing her own tune into short phrases with little pauses between them which she builds up into a fairly good head of steam. There’s a wonderful passage where Pentney and bassist Jon Maharaj play together in simultaneous single lines, probably planned in advance but adding to the composition. When Au returns she is in full flight, more garrulous than before but developing her own tune wonderfully.

Bolero is a ballad, taken at a very slow 4 and having little to do with a true bolero rhythm. Vocalist Felicity Williams sings softly and wordlessly along with Au in the opening choruses, following which Maharaj rolls out his bass lines with beautiful poise and a fine sense of structure while Au and Williams continue on softly behind him. By contrast, Aureole is a straightahead swinger, with Au skipping on top of the beat. Her solo here sounds the most Bird-like, fast, fluent and inventive. Pentney switches to the Hammond B3 organ for his solo, which swings like mad, equally skipping across the top of the beat lightly.

Allison AuThe Clearing is another quiet piece, this one more atmospheric, the out-of-tempo intro featuring Williams’ voice in the background as if in an echo chamber. When the downbeat comes and Au starts her first solo, she plays with an intriguing, hard tone for a while before softening her stance. Deluge is introduced by Pentney on the Fender Rhodes, but this one has a hard rock beat which made me run the other way. Fortunately, Through Light, though a bit funky, lacks the hard rock beat of its predecessor and is a very interesting tune constructed of little rhythmic cells, much like some of Bird’s compositions. The drums tend towards rock in certain half-choruses, which for me spoils the excellent effect of Au’s playing and the interest of her improvised lines, but Ragnelli pulls back on the rock influence in the rest of the track. Au’s and Maharaj’s solos are quite fine and the drum solo is more in a jazz than a rock groove. The late Roy Eldridge put it best: “The jazz beat goes somewhere. The rock beat stays somewhere.” Tumble is a medium-slow piece with a somewhat modal harmonic base, fascinating and hypnotic, with a nice “gliding” sound by the rhythm section under Au’s sensuous alto. I was fascinated by Pentney’s slow, sinuous, single-note piano lines; whether composed or improvised, they fit in perfectly. When Au returns for her longest and most serious solo, she is locked in and playing in a quite torrid style.

Your Ordinary Stranger begins with Pentney tinkling on piano, then switching to electric keyboard as the rest of the rhythm section comes in and they all back Au in her statement of the theme. This is a piece that almost tells its story by suggestion and half-statements. Rangelli keeps trying to sneak a rock beat in here and there. I’d rather he didn’t. Pentney fully understands what Au is driving at, however, and so approaches his own keyboard solo with small gestures rather than grand statements.

They Say We Are Not Here is the longest track on the album at 11:59, with another wordless vocal from Williams. This one is a bit too much like smooth jazz for my taste, but those who enjoy this genre will like it very much. Au’s solo is beautifully shaped and molded, including some surprising buzzes. But wait! After an interminably long pause of 32 seconds (I thought the album was over), we suddenly get a lively, uptempo tune, completely different, driven by electric organ and bass with Au playing at her very best.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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