SFJAZZ.org | Allison Au

On The Corner Masthead

The World Outside My Window:
Impressions of the Ever-Evolving Toronto Jazz Scene

September 9, 2019 | by Allison Au 

Allison Au

Allison Au

Toronto-based saxophonist and composer Allison Au is a forward-thinking, vital young artist who is clearly among the leading lights on the city's fertile creative scene. In advance of her SFJAZZ debut in the Joe Henderson Lab on 9/21, we asked her to talk about what makes the Ontario capital such a vibrant place for artistic expression.

“What is it like being a female jazz musician?”

“Have you found it difficult being a woman in jazz?”

These are questions that I’ve been asked in interviews numerous times. And while the issues alluded to by questions such as these are very real, and always present, I have to say that I’ve had an incredibly positive experience as a musician in Canada. I am extremely grateful to have come up at a time when women have had opportunities that previous generations weren’t granted. I was also born in Toronto; a city widely recognized as one of the most multicultural, multiracial cities in the world.

The great diversity of cultures adds an undeniable richness to the artistic communities that flourish here. The Greater Toronto Area is home to almost six million people, making it the fifth largest city in North America. One can hear over 180 different languages and dialects spoken here. While it’s difficult to name a single signature dish for the city, you can find food from every corner of the world here. Toronto also has wonderful museums, galleries, theatres, concert halls and hosts hundreds of different cultural festivals all year round.

When I enrolled in college to study jazz, there were already a number of established female Canadian musicians for me to look up to: Tara Davidson, Christine Jensen, Colleen Allen, Ingrid Jensen, Jane Bunnett, Jodi Proznick, Renee Rosnes, Diana Krall. These musicians showed me that a career in jazz — one of the most male dominated genres — was possible. These musicians all helped shape the musical vision I set for myself.

I formed my first band, the Allison Au Quartet, in 2009. Fresh out of school, I knew I wanted to cultivate a collective band sound. It was my ambition to find an outlet for my voice as a composer, and it became imperative for me to surround myself with musicians who challenged me to grow as an artist. In order to realize my vision, I needed to establish a core band. I wanted to work with a consistent group of musicians with whom I could experiment and explore the possibilities of my music.

The jazz scene in Toronto is constantly evolving and expanding, as it is in cities all over the world. And with the advent of the internet, it is possible to discover new music, art, dance, literature, films, and lectures at the click of a button.

It’s hard to define the sound of jazz in Toronto. The jazz community is constantly experimenting with new sounds and textures, blurring the lines between genre, style, instrumentation and form. Jazz in Toronto is a music that is imbued with so many influences, much like the city itself.

As difficult as it is to define just exactly what the “sound of Toronto” might be, my perception is that there is an abundance of musicians who want to start bands: individuals who come together to collaborate with one another, build a book of original repertoire, and collectively create a truly unique ensemble voice.

Toronto is rich with talent. Here are some of the bands that inspire me:

Myriad 3

Myriad 3
Myriad 3 is the synergetic trio of pianist Chris Donnelly, bassist Dan Fortin, and drummer Ernesto Cervini. Since forming in 2010, the trio has been prolific, releasing five albums on Alma Records and completing multiple tours across Canada, Europe and Japan.

Michael Davidson and Dan Fortin
Long time musical collaborators, vibraphonist Michael Davidson and bassist Dan Fortin, have been performing together in numerous projects for over 11 years. They are among the most sought after musicians in jazz and creative music circles. Clock Radio, their marvelous duo debut, was released earlier this year on a collective outlet they cofounded called “Elastic Recordings.”

Amanda Tosoff

Amanda Tosoff’s “Words” Project
Juno Award nominated, pianist and composer Amanda Tosoff has five albums to her credit. Her latest release, Words is a grand experiment in poetry and instrumentation. Featuring her long time collaborators Alex Goodman (guitar), Jon Maharaj (bass) and Morgan Childs (drums), Words also guest features a number of Canada’s best vocalists, including Felicity Williams, Lydia Persaud, Alex Samaras, and Juno Awarding winning Emilie-Claire Barlow.

Ethan Ardelli Quartet
Drummer and composer Ethan Ardelli has been a fixture in Toronto jazz circles for over a decade. He formed his quartet in 2014, featuring Luis Deniz (alto saxophone), Chris Donnelly (piano), and Devon Henderson (bass). In 2018, the band released an astounding debut record, The Island of Form.


Formed in 2012, Autobahn is a wonderfully collaborative trio that explores improvisation through original repertoire. The band features pianist James Hill, saxophonist Jeff LaRochelle and drummer Ian Wright. They’ve released two studio albums: The River (2014) and Of The Tree (2016). This year, they released Doppler, an EP that delves into electronic sounds and textures.

Bernice is the brainchild of vocalist/composer Robin Dann. Featuring the inimitable Thom Gill (guitar, keyboards), Felicity Williams (voice), Dan Fortin (bass), and Phil Melanson (drums), this is a band that is truly a group of friends and even closer collaborators. Bernice’s music is an exquisite fusion of pop, noise and synth with jazz and R&B.

Andrew Downing’s Otterville
Bassist/cellist/composer Andrew Downing is a Renaissance man. Though he has established his voice primarily in the Creative jazz scene in Toronto, he can frequently be found performing classical chamber music, improvised music, folk and roots music, and world music. Otterville features Andrew Downing (cello), Tara Davidson (alto saxophone), Christine Bougie (lap steel guitar), Michael Davidson (vibraphone), Paul Matthew (bass), and Nick Fraser (drums). Their 2016 release was nominated for a Juno Award and was included on the Long List for the 2017 Polaris Music Prize.

Tara Kannagara

Tara Kannagara
Juno Award nominated trumpeter and vocalist, Tara Kannagara, has established herself as a unique voice. Tara has released two critically acclaimed albums with her five-piece band, featuring her long time bandmates Chris Pruden, Matt Fong, Julian Anderson-Bowes and Mackenzie Longpre. Her music eloquently blends elements of synth, pop, alt and experimental with improvised sections.

Queer Songbook Orchestra
With artistic director and trumpeter Shaun Brodie at the helm, the Queer Songbook Orchestra is a beautiful 12-piece chamber pop ensemble. Formed as a collective in 2014, the group’s goal is to shed light on obscured LGBTQ2S historical narratives. Though the core band features incredible musicians Alanna Stuart (Vocals), Alex Samaras (Vocals), Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (Storyteller/Poet), Jennifer Burford (Violin), Evan Lamberton (Cello), Lief Mosbaugh (Oboe/English Horn/Vocals), Micajah Sturgess (French Horn), Thom Gill (Guitar/Vocals), Johnny Spence (Piano), Dan Fortin (Double Bass), Stefan Schneider (Drums/Percussion), the ensemble also frequently collaborates on new projects with guest artists and commissions work from some of the best composers and arrangers in the city.