Allison Au: Migrations

Canadian saxophonist adds strings to her conventional jazz quartet to play rhythmic, mostly modal pieces intended to evoke migration


Why do people pursue life in new lands? And how do those choices affect later generations? Migrations explores these questions. Canadian-born saxophonist Allison Au’s family history reaches to Southern China, Malaysia, Poland and Israel. Her fourth record as leader reaches beyond her longstanding quartet by adding a string ensemble, vibraphone, poetry and vocals.

Au’s familiar foursome consists of pianist Todd Pentney, bassist Jon Maharaj and drummer Fabio Ragnelli. Michael Davidson’s vibraphone and Laila Biali’s voice join this album, as well as two violins, a viola and a cello. Some readers may cower behind the sofa at the mention of strings mingling with conventional jazz instruments. But Au integrates the new voices seamlessly.

The melody on Prayer pairs alto saxophone with lyric-free vocals. Strings add angelic sighing. It’s an early display of Au’s gift for arrangements that are vivid without becoming crowded. Her saxophone solo takes its time to climb arpeggio shapes. It’s an uplifting track and a neat feat of sonic alchemy.

Heavenly spirits give way to electronic entities on The ISM. Synthesizer is prominent behind poetry read with soft-edged diction. The vibraphone gives a dreamy solo. Again, it’s a multi-textured composition that welcomes all of the instruments without straining to wedge them in.

Violin gets the limelight on Racing Across The Land, alongside lyrics sung with a Broadway-rich tone. There’s even a scurrying solo on the Stradivarius (probably) before a long, groovy outro.

After taking a risk by inviting new instruments into the studio, Allison Au exercises skill and intuition to create a balanced, uncongested album. Migrations is characterised by deep consideration for the listener on every track and movement. It’s a record that reaches into the unknown and grasps more than a handful of success.

Choice; Prayer, The ISM, Progress, Aves Raras; Racing Across The Land; For Russel And Rowena Jelliffe; Them Intro; Them, Keep A Few Embers From The Fire; Migration; Pecola; I Dream A World (42.27)
Allison Au (as, ss); Todd Pentney (p, syn); Michael Davidson (vib); Jon Maharaj (b, elb), Fabio Ragnelli (d, pc); Laila Biali (v); Aline Homzy (vn); Jeremy Potts (vn); Catherine Gray (vla); Amahl Arulanandam (clo). Toronto, Canada 2023.