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Allison Au Quartet: Forest Grove

Dave Wayne By

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The sheer number of great young jazz musicians coming out of every corner of the world is simply staggering. Allison Au is an alto saxophonist from Toronto, Ontario, Canada whose debut album, The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey (Self-Produced, 2014) was nominated for a Juno Award: Canada's equivalent of a Grammy nomination. Her new album, Forest Grove, featuring all-original compositions recorded with the same group, has also been nominated for a Juno in 2016. Think about that for a moment.

What's really striking is the fact that Au's music is a bit odd and pretty challenging. While not an avant-gardist or an intellectual / theoretical sort, Au is an artist with a mind of her own. She panders to no one. She has a lush, clean, irrepressibly pleasant alto tone, though she's not afraid to get down and dirty when the situation demands it. Forest Grove contains a real mix of styles, yet there's a continuity here that, well, makes you happy that some young artists still care about the concept of an album as a self-contained statement. The tunes on Forest Grove range from poignant ballads, to oddball fusion-like constructions, to the up-tempo Hammond B-3 driven hard bop of "Aureole" and (spoiler alert) the untitled piece hidden after the end of the last track. There's a vast silence after "They Say We Are Not Here," and then—BAM—this great up-tempo Phil Woods-like soul-jazz thing comes out of nowhere. Even if you read this review, you'll still be surprised.

Au has really mastered the art of the ballad. Hers have a truly spacy, dreamy quality. "Bolero" has vocalist Felicity WIlliams wordlessly doubling Au's languid melody, which simply repeats throughout, even underpinning Jon Maharaj's eloquent bass solo. More a slow, impressionistic jazz tune than a ballad, "Tumble" showcases Au's lush tone, languidly draped across some really interesting bass-piano harmonies. The piece builds, growing less gentle and more forceful, climaxing with a bit of ferocity before ending gently. Conceptually, "They Say We Are Not Here" is similar to "Bolero." The dreamy, detached feeling is there, and Williams doubles the melody, and there's another bass solo, but the overall feel is closer to a true jazz ballad. Au throws some unexpected gravel into her solo as Todd Pentney switches to electronic keys and Fabio Ragnelli transitions from brushes to mallets.

The remainder of the album, its meat, is a really creative sort of plugged-in jazz. I hate to call it fusion. Pentney uses a variety of analog keyboards, and Maharaj gets down on the electric bass. It's groove-oriented, but not in a brash, funky way. There's an understated, introspective quality to this quartet's music that is strangely beguiling. That said, all of these young players have chops to burn and they aren't shy about showing their stuff. Au's compositions, inspired by the sights and sounds of the heavily wooded area where she grew up, are both compelling and memorable. As complex as they are, they leave plenty of room for substantial solos by all. The opener, "Tides," is an angular up-tempo Latin-ish piece that showcases Ragnelli's considerable percussive talents. His playing here and on Daniel Fortin's Brinks (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2015) is nothing short of remarkable—he's easily the equivalent to any young first-call jazz drummer in New York City.

At the heart of Forest Grove is a triumvirate of compositions as strong as you'll hear coming from anywhere in 2016. "The Clearing" is a lovely waltz which opens with Au's alto and Williams' ghostly electronically-altered whispering. The tune itself has a poignant, sweet-but-melancholy character. This proves to be an ideal setup for the hard-charging, anthemic "Deluge," driven by Pentney's multi-keyboards with Au's alto singing loud and strong over the top. Here, the prominent Rhodes and heavy rockish rhythm is somewhat reminiscent of UK-based jazz-rockers such as Nucleus and National Health. "Through Light" takes a harmonic element from "Deluge" and expands on it. Au runs away with the spotlight here: her solo is a narrative whirlwind of moods and colors. Another complex piece with several interlocking parts, it sounds as if it's being played by a much larger group.

The best thing about Forest Grove is that it really doesn't sound like anyone else's stuff. Yet, it's familiar and warm. Friendly, even. It invites repeated listens, and there are a lot of angles, departures and odd sequences in Au's music which are worth listening to several times at least. So there's a lot to hear. It's truly gratifying to know that original, non-commercial music like this is recognized on a larger scale by music industry types. Sure, they're from Canada, but still...

Track Listing: Tides; Bolero; Aureole; The Clearing; Deluge; Through Light; Tumble; You Ordinary Stranger; They Say We Are Not Here.

Personnel: Allison Au: alto saxophone; Todd Pentney; piano, Hammond B3, Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, synthesizers; Jon Maharaj: bass, electric bass; Fabio Ragnelli: drums, percussion, Felicity Williams: vocals (2, 4, 9).

Title: Forest Grove | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Self Produced

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