Allison Au has been a leading voice in Canadian jazz for more than a decade.
With three Juno nominations and one win for Forest Grove in 2016, the saxophonist and composer has now delivered her most personal work yet. Her new album Migrations focuses on why people leave their homes to pursue a life in a new land, using her own family’s story as inspiration for the music.
Au joined us to talk about the new album.
Tell me about how this record came to be.
The music was the result of a commission by the Royal Conservatory. I had an ongoing relationship with them prior to 2019 when I did the commission; I had performed there with my quartet, and we had kept in touch. I had approached them to inquire about other performing opportunities, and [executive director of performing arts Mervon Mehta] approached me with a proposal of writing music for their 21C Music Festival, which celebrates new collaborations. They often commission artists who participate in that festival deliberately encourage new writing with different instrumentation or with artists they’ve never worked with before.
As a composer, is that an exciting prospect?
Yes, it’s super flattering. I was really honoured. It was a fun challenge because he gave me cart blanche to write whatever, with the intention of reaching out to different musicians or including different instrumentation.
So, the concept was from you. They weren’t looking for a broad concept about immigrants or immigration.
That was a theme I came up with on my own. One piece of information I did know was that the ensemble would be opening for Danilo Pérez’s Global Messengers. So, I checked out Danilo’s music and, of course, he’s an incredibly prolific artist, but with that ensemble, he features instruments from different countries. When I knew [that], I thought it would be really cool to tie in themes that were also global in scope. That’s where I turned inward and looked to my family inspiration for the motivation behind the music.
Had the notion of your family’s story ever been in the back of your mind before all of this?
Yes, and it’s interesting that you ask that question now, because in hindsight, there are so many stories from my childhood that were shared with me from my parents and my grandparents, and they nestled themselves in my mind but I never really found the project through which to express them in a way that I felt would do them honour.
Tell us about the interesting combination of people that make up your family.
On my mother’s side, my ancestors are from Poland. My grandparents fled Poland during the war and came to Canada via Israel in 1952. Through the experience of the war, my grandfather lost his entire family. My grandmother was privileged to come with her family, but her extended family settled in New York while my grandmother came to Montreal. On my father’s side, my grandparents are both from southern China and immigrated to Malaysia in the early 1900s, and they also experienced World War II, albeit in southeast Asia. It’s a very interesting contrast. My father came to Canada via England in 1972. So, they’re seemingly disparate stories, but the union of my parents in Toronto is such a common story for so many Canadians — and any settlers in different countries who are trying to pursue opportunity. My mother is first-generation Canadian, but I’m the first generation from my father’s side. This collaboration of stories is unique to me, but so universal in scope.
Outside of the music, what do you think each side of that equation brought to you as a person?
So many things. Growing up, I felt very conflicted as I was navigating two identities — racially, religiously, and personally. I was trying to navigate the differences between ethnicity and race, and what culture means. There are so many intersections and overlapping notions of what really connects people to different things. As an adult, I’m definitely a Canadian after all is said and done. I was born here and identify most closely with Canadian things as a kid of the ’80s and ’90s. But to know where you come from is so powerful in understanding how we come to be.
Your dad’s musical collection was a powerful jumping-off point for you. What was in that collection and how did it get you to pick up an instrument?
My father’s an avid music lover, and he had a huge vinyl and CD collection. He just loved music. He grew up in Malaysia and moved to England when he was 17 or 18, so he left home at a very young age, and I think he found music through exposure to European culture at that time. I remember him telling me that his first years in London, he felt very much alone as a Chinese-Malaysian young man. He felt very much outside and not really belonging to the community of his peers when he was attending school there. He found refuge in music. I remember him telling me about going vinyl shopping on the weekend as [a means of] finding solace during that time. [When I was a kid] there would always be music playing at parties and social gatherings.
Give me a sense of what that music was.
He loved vocalists. Nat King Cole was in heavy rotation… Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald. He loved zydeco music. I remember a lot of Ry Cooder. And I guess by proxy, Buena Vista Social Club. There was a lot of Brazilian music. He loved reggae, we had Jimmy Cliff records. And musical theatre. I remember listening to Show Boat, West Side Story, opera…
It’s the perfect foundation for being a musician, in some ways.
Absolutely. A lot of the basis of jazz, actually, without me really knowing it. As a teen, I gravitated toward R&B and soul — Aretha Franklin, James Brown. I loved a lot of the ’90s R&B music, which I realized also came from jazz. As I dug deeper and got more serious about listening to music, I realized a lot of the roots went back to jazz and New Orleans-based music.
It seems like you’re one of the few people who’s had a core group that’s stayed together over multiple years and multiple albums. You put this music together with them, but then you incorporated a bunch of different things — strings, poetry, vocals — on this new album. When you sit down to tell your family’s story with so many moving parts, that seems like it would be a daunting, almost overwhelming responsibility.
I knew I wanted to keep that consistent element of my core ensemble — a rhythm section and myself on saxophone — but the opportunity to integrate new instrumentation made me think of including vocals, which is a completely new element. I’ve been a huge fan of vocal music, but writing with lyrics really presented a new opportunity for me, and I felt it would be a really fun challenge to take on. And with strings, there are so many incredible jazz records that have a string quartet, and I’m also a big fan of classical music … so I thought that would be a great template to bring into the music as well. So, that spectrum of colours presented different challenges. In light of the intention of the 21C Music Festival, it clicked for me that this would be the variety of elements that would check those boxes.
When you’re writing stuff that has a narrative to it, do you come up with visuals in your mind that help you get there, or does the music itself just take you there?
For this project, I took writing cues more literally from the poetry itself. I paid a visit to the Toronto Reference Library, and with the help of a wonderful librarian I was directed to a bunch of different books, a lot of them anthologies. I had the vision of finding writers of varying backgrounds; my background is Polish-Jewish and Malaysian-Chinese, so I wanted to bring in not necessarily poets of that specific origin, but a lot of incredible Black American writers and [Indigenous writers in Canada], and writers of varying backgrounds. Because of the global scope of what the project is, I wanted to have a more universal feeling. I found these poems that spoke to me right off the page, and those ended up being the words that I used for the music. I used the words to set pacing and … change and inform the textures I used.
That seems like a great way to represent how universal these stories are.
There’s so much richness in the words themselves. It’s a very new medium for me; this is my first project tackling lyrics. But also, with the lush colours of the instrumentation that I choose, there were so many options to choose from.
Was working with vocals an experience that you would want to do again, or was this a nice experiment and you’ll move on from it?
I think I would like to do it again. In fact, there was a project I did in the fall with three other musicians — Amanda Tosoff, Felicity Williams and Pete Johnson — and we did a poetry collection where we each composed music to lyrics. It was yet another challenge for myself. I think that working with words is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done as a saxophone player and composer, and I think it pushed me into a new arena. As challenging as it is, it’s really made me think differently.
This interview has been edited and condensed.