There was a time when “fusion” meant wailing synths and distorted electric guitar, a loud, showy sound that traded the bounce of swing for the on-the-one insistence of funk or rock. These days, though, jazz musicians who draw influences from outside of the postbop continuum don’t trade one set of clichés for another, but simply try to give traditional jazz room to spread its roots and grow in different terrains.
Which brings us to Toronto saxophonist Allison Au and her quartet’s wonderful third album, Wander Wonder. Like many of her generation (she’s 30), Au is as much a composer as an improviser, and her writing tends to balance repeating melodic ideas—bass lines, chordal figures—against complex chord progressions, providing the rhythmic intensity of a hammered riff without locking the soloist into a limited harmonic vocabulary.
Au is particularly fond of short, epigrammatic phrases in her solos, a trait that has earned more than a few comparisons to Wayne Shorter. But her canniest strategy is the way she uses dynamics to shape a line, as on “Force Majeure,” where her alto almost whispers the fleet-fingered asides she sprinkles around her bigger phrases. Fabio Ragnelli often does something similar on the drums, offering eddies of counter-rhythm while leaving the basic pulse to riffs played by bassist Jon Maharaj and keyboardist Todd Pentney.
Yes, there are moments in “The Valley” and “Red Herring” that recall early Weather Report, but there’s also “The Lie that Saves Us All,” which swings as hard as any Phil Woods track. And that’s the best thing about Wander Wonder—not only does this band cover a lot of ground, but they cover it well.