The top floor of First Street Cafe has hosted several musical talents over the years and will do so again Friday. The difference is the guests will come from America’s neighbor to the north.
The Allison Au Quartet are a Toronto-based jazz group featuring Todd Pentney on piano, Fabio Ragnelli on drums, Dan Fortin and John Maharaja alternating on bass and the leader Au on saxophone. Together, they blend traditional jazz with other genres for a unique style.
“I am trying to use song forms that pay homage to the jazz standards, but I’m trying to apply a lot of the sounds and textures in compositions derived from classical music and world music as well,” Au said. “It’s kind of a combination of things.”
Au was drawn to music at a very young age. When she was about 5 or 6, her parents enrolled her in piano lessons.
“I started doing it without knowing if I really liked it at that point yet,” she said.
However, what really gave her a love for the medium was from exposure to her father’s diverse record collection.
“My dad had a really amazing vinyl collection at home, and he played all sorts of styles of music,” she said. “Anything from opera to jazz to a lot of world music.”
Au was particularly inspired by the sounds of jazz music, especially jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
“That was something that really hooked me into jazz because it just captivated my interest,” she said. “There’s some kind of wonder about it.”
Au was further influenced by a lot of saxophone players, ranging from legends like Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker to modern greats like Will Vinson and Seamus Blake. Au also takes cues from classical and world music and blends them together in what she describes as a “mishmash” of styles.
“With so much access to iTunes and all the streaming stuff we have now, there’s so much I try to check out on a regular basis,” she said.
Au met Petney and Ragnelli in their music studies program at Humber College in Toronto. After graduating, they recruited Fortin as bassist and The Allison Au Quartet was born. The group has released two albums: 2013’s “The Sky was Pale Blue, Then Grey” and 2016’s “Forest Grove.” Both releases have been nominated for Juno awards, which honor Canadian artists. “Forest Grove” is eligible for group jazz album of the year, something which delights Au.
“It’s really a privilege to be included in a category with so many amazing musicians from Canada as well as to be recognized in a city along with so many other cities because this country is huge,” she said. “It’s a celebration of a lot of different talent from as far as Halifax on the East Coast of Canada to Vancouver on the West Coast.”
Au says she gets along really well with the other members of her band, and they are close enough to give each other honest suggestions.
“I feel like I can really trust the guys now,” she said. “When I bring in new music, it has the chance to develop because we have this really honest dialogue. Even if I bring a tune in and I’m not completely sure if it’s finished yet, the guys have a lot of constructive feedback.”
“The music has a chance to grow because we’re all tossing around different ideas, and the guys are giving me ideas on how to change things and how to make sections better and sometimes we cut sections altogether,” she added. “Since we’re all friends, that communication has really made the music grow in a way that I don’t think it would have a chance to in another context.”
The band has played jazz venues in Toronto as well as more intimate venues like restaurants and bars in Canada and the United States. In the fall of 2014, the group did its first tour in western Canadian provinces like British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The group has chosen to revisit some of those venues for their 2016 tour, but this time they will be touring both Canada’s and America’s west coasts. The quartet has played at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley and the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco and will be playing Benicia Friday.
“This is our first time in California,” Au said. “This is all very new for us. It’s awesome though. The weather is blowing our minds right now because it’s super cold in Canada.”
Au says she is very happy to expose her creativity to the denizens of Benicia.
“I’m very excited to share my music with a new audience,” she said.
The Allison Au Quartet will be performing from 8 to 11:15 p.m., Friday, March 4, upstairs at First Street Cafe, located at 440 First St. The usual menu will be available along with a selection of wine and beer. For more information, visit AllisonAu.com or call the restaurant at (707) 745-1400.