It’s not difficult, listening to Allison Au’s music, to determine that melody is her main concern. She’s one of those saxophonists who sing through their horn; rather than run flashy but emotionally vacant arpeggios, she always seems to be developing some sort of narrative idea. So it’s not entirely surprising to find out that her earliest musical influences were singers—and, more particularly, the singers that her father had favoured ever since he was a boy, growing up in Singapore.
“Exposure to vocal jazz came very early in my life,” Au tells the Straight, in a telephone conversation from her Toronto home. “My dad had a very wide variety of music in his record and CD collection when I was a child, and he just happened to have a lot more vocal representation in his collection. So that was what I first heard. He had some instrumentalists, too, just not as much. I think he really loved Nat King Cole while he was growing up, and people like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald as well.
“I think I was maybe 6 when I first heard Ella Fitzgerald,” she continues. “What drew me to it was just the energy and the rhythmic playfulness.…It was just something that was completely captivating. I would listen to Ella’s version of ‘Mack the Knife’ on Repeat, ’cause I loved it. She imitates these instruments… I don’t know. It was just so engaging to me, as a kid. I’m not sure if I’ve deliberately tried to emulate it in my own music, but it’s worked its way in—although of course in a more modern context.”
Playfulness is evident in Au’s work, but it’s paired with a certain bittersweet quality, something she ascribes to her mother’s side of the family. On her debut CD, The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey, she dedicates a song to her maternal grandmother, who survived the Holocaust before immigrating to this country after the Second World War. “She used to love to sing when we were little,” Au explains, “so it’s kind of a melancholy bit of nostalgia from my childhood. I have some other music inspired by my grandfather, so there are family-related stories that inspire the music, and they come from somewhat sad places. But I’ve tried to reflect on my gratitude to them, while also acknowledging what they went through to come to Canada.”
Au adds that her music is often inspired by nature, and this listener thought that might have been the case with “They Say We Are Not Here”, the final track on 2016’s Juno Award–winning Forest Grove. The piece sounds like Au is looking at an autumnal scene from behind plate glass, before putting on her boots to go dance in the fallen leaves—an interpretation that pleases the saxophonist, even if
she gently says it’s all wrong. Instead, her source material was a New York Times video documentary on the late Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato.
“It was a very moving video essay, and at the end they kind of commemorate his life, because he was murdered after it was filmed,” she says. “He was talking about all the political stress that he’d been going through in order to advocate for equal rights in his country, and he said, ‘The government, they say we are not here. They don’t want to acknowledge us.’ That was particularly poignant for me. So, yeah, I draw from many kinds of inspiration.
“But that’s what’s wonderful about music and the arts,” she continues. “Everyone hears something different, regardless of the source.”
The Allison Au Quartet plays a free Performance Works concert at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday (June 23), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.