Pianist Nick Maclean sees jazz fusion as much more than a reincarnation of the 1970s.

Nick Maclean (photo by Steve York)
Jazz pianist Nick Maclean plays laptop, MIDI, breath controller, and talk box, instead of keyboards, in his jazz fusion band Snaggle. The band is showcasing their recently-released second album on a mini-tour including Ottawa this week. (photo by Steve York)

His jazz group Snaggle, which is back in Ottawa on Saturday after a two-year gap, is certainly influenced by 70s groups like Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, or Chick Corea's Return to Forever, he says – but also some of the more modern brandings of fusion.

“Fusion's become a dirty word these days because it's very iconic of the 70s-era jazz/rock collaborations. But today we're seeing other kinds of incarnations of that – like in the band Snarky Puppy. And they're very much a large influence on the band's sound and on their direction, in terms of how I wrote and how we play the tunes. And that kind of breed of music takes a lot more influences from like dance tracks, from a little bit of hip-hop. I suppose it's just a wider range of things that we're drawing from.”

That includes the highly modern method Maclean uses for performing – on what looks at first glance to be keyboards, but what is actually a conglomeration of laptop, MIDI controller, breath controller, and talk box.

Last fall, Snaggle released its second full-length studio album, The Long Slog. The tracks on that album definitely contain rock-influenced guitar solos and funkified riffs – but also finely tuned trumpet interjections and melancholy sax lines. There's a huge dynamic and rhythmic range in the album, with some songs reminiscent of Pat Metheny's “The Way Up”, or Charlie Haden's Quartet West.

Maclean, the group's 26-year-old leader and primary composer, was raised in Ottawa and cut his musical teeth here in Ottawa's jazz scene, before moving to Toronto. His own jazz influences include Hiromi Uehara and the Brad Mehldau-Mark Guiliana duo – but he also listens to metal bands. “Rage Against the Machine and Tool are both bands that I really enjoy checking out, and their influences have definitely crept into my writing as well.”

Saturday's show at the Avant-Garde Bar is part of a four-city (Kingston, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto) tour showcasing their new material. It's the group's first appearance in Ottawa proper in the last two years, although they did appear at Merrickville's Jazzfest in 2015 and in a house concert in Almonte in 2016.

A new musical partnership

The show will also feature a new musical partnership, with acclaimed Toronto trumpeter Brownman Ali, who produced The Long Slog and released it on his independent label, Browntasauras Records. Ali is playing with Snaggle on the tour.

Ali's group Cruzao won the Grand Prix du Jazz at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2001, and he was nominated for or won numerous National Jazz Awards. After gaining a B. Sc. in physics from the University of Waterloo, he spent 15 years in Brooklyn studying with trumpeter Randy Brecker and playing in the New York scene, before returning to Toronto. He currently leads and composes for seven of his own varied ensembles, ranging from Latin jazz to Miles-Davis-style electric, and has toured with major artists including Paul Simon and Jay-Z.

“He's a killer trumpet player and brings an enormous wealth of knowledge and experience to the table. So we're pretty damn excited,” Maclean said.

And a new incarnation for Snaggle

The tour is also presenting a different incarnation of Snaggle than before. The musicians – except for Maclean and Ali – won't be the same as on the album, although the line-up does include some high-powered Toronto jazz talent, such as the 2016 Grand Prix du Jazz winner, bassist Brad Cheeseman.

The issue: day jobs. While Maclean is a full-time musician, not all the other members are.

“Lately, the band's structure has changed a little bit,” Maclean said. “Because as we're all getting more established in our own separate carers, different members of the band have more or less time for different things. So we changed the structure of the band and so pretty much I'm the only permanent member of Snaggle, and the rest of the guys have become the first-calls. So I'm developing a rotating chair of players on the different instruments of the band, so that when the first-calls are available, they play! But they don't have any particular obligation to play every gig. And that frees me up to book what I think we need to book. But it also means that the other guys don't get burned out, playing what we need to do. Especially since not everyone has decided to pursue music full-time.”

For example, Snaggle co-founder and bassist Doug Moore is now working in HR. “He's still playing bass, lots, these days, but as anyone in the industry will be able to tell you, pursuing music full-time as a career is really difficult, and there are tons of guys that have day gigs that bring in the money, and then they play outside of that.”

Moore contributed one song to their latest album, and Maclean the rest. He said he enjoyed writing for the group because it “puts out a lot of energy. And so I find I get a lot of joy – it's a very visceral thing that can happen sometime when they're playing tunes. And I can tap into a very gut-wrenching energy which I enjoy a lot.”

"The tunes shift very wildly from different extremes at different points in time"

But because of the dynamic range in the group's music, the songs can be more challenging to arrange, he said. “The tunes, they shift very wildly from different extremes at different points in time. It's something you can't improvise nearly as well if you want to do it predictably within the members of the group. So definitely the arranging aspect of it increases the amount of time it takes to write for the group, but I really enjoy exploring that more groove-oriented flavour of jazz.”

Snaggle: The Long Slog CD cover

Making the latest album was literally a “long slog”, he said, starting in 2015. The title track took over a year to write: “it started out as something very different from what it ended up being. Some tunes will just do that: I'll get a really great idea and I'll write down a bunch of stuff, and then I'll get stuck! Or it will get stale and I'll shelve it, and I'll come back to it months later, and it will inspire something else.”

That was reflected in the album art, he said, which shows a “ferocious tiger walking through that alien desert planet from his crash-landed spaceship, typifying and demonstrating the whole narrative behind The Long Slog – the long journey, the tired and laborious journey but at the end of it there's still a lot of fight left in him and a lot of ferocity.”

Before the actual recording, Maclean said, they would record rehearsals and gigs, and then he and Ali would listen to them. “And he'd give me notes on parts of the arrangements which could change, and his entire goal was not to create a Brownman project out of it, but to present the best possible version of ourselves as we can.”

Ali also performed on two of the tracks, and the “ferocious energetic side to his playing” helped to “just pep up everyone else around him, and it pushes us into places which we wouldn't necessarily have gone before, which is incredible.”
And Ali's own philosophy of “let's all link arms so that we're all stronger for it, and we'll all get ahead” also fits in with what Maclean liked about playing in Ottawa's jazz scene: its openness and the willingness to incorporate talented new players.

The album also includes 12 pages of liner notes by Toronto jazz pianist Dave Restivo, who taught Maclean at Humber College, in which Restivo dissects the album. “It makes a great companion for listening to it, because you get all these fun descriptions of what he was thinking as he was going through, and it just adds another dimension, another layer of connectivity to the music.”

It also contains an Easter egg: the fourth track on the album is called “Track 5”, and there is no fifth track. It's a insider-reference to the band's first album, which also had a “missing” fifth track.

“On our very first album, we got the design back from our designer, we sent it to be printed. We got 250 copies, and they looked awesome! And then I got a call from my mother-in-law, and she said, 'Nick, the album looks wonderful, but the tracks go 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9.' [he laughs] We'd already printed 250 copies, so we went with it.”

“So, on this album we wanted to keep that going. And anyone who downloads or rips it into iTunes, they'll notice that there is a fifth track. And it's named “The key of listening”, and it's just a couple seconds of silence moving us into the next tune.”

Playing keyboards with circular breathing?

Maclean is a pianist by training, and studied jazz in Humber's four-year bachelor's program, followed by a Masters in Jazz Performance from the University of Toronto. In his own jazz quartet, he plays piano by preference. But for Snaggle, he has a very different set-up.

All the sounds he plays are stored in a program on his laptop, which he controls through the keyboard of a MIDI controller. From that, he can map what parameters of different sounds he wants to control in a live situation as well as which physical control he wants to use to do it.

He also uses a talk box, an effects unit which looks like a long, thick piece of tubing attached to a control box. “I first saw this being used with a synth in one of Snarky Puppy's videos. It had such a visceral quality to it that I loved so much. Basically what's going on there is all of the sound from the laptop is being funneled through that tube and into my mouth. Then based on the shape of my mouth the sound that comes out and gets picked up by the microphone will have different vowel sounds.”

And the headset Maclean wears is a TEC breath controller, which he uses instead of the more common expression pedal, mostly to control volume. “This is a handy device that plugs right into my laptop. It sends a MIDI signal to my laptop based on how hard I blow and I can use that to control whatever I want it to.”

“The breath controller I discovered while I was doing my Masters degree. I was doing some research into synthesizer pedagogy for my main research project. Most cats use an expression pedal to control volume and other things – and I hate the expression pedal, because I find it doesn't have enough tactile feedback with my feet. My feet are pretty clumsy, so it just doesn't feel like an effective way of changing these parameters.

“So the breath controller has so much more flexibility to it, and so much more responsiveness to it. During high school, I used to play trombone, so I've got a lot of that breath control aspect side of it together. Yes, I love it! It's a much more flexible way of controlling dynamics or other parameters around some of the sound. Anytime you hear me playing an organ sound on the keyboard, if I'm not blowing into that breath controller, it's not going to make a sound. As soon as I start blowing into it, and the harder I blow, it will get louder and louder. And, actually, for the organ patches, as organs traditionally aren't played with breath controllers – if you take a look at a real [Hammond] B3 organ, it's got an expression pedal that controls the dynamics.”

In order produce sustained organ chords and not be gasping for breath, Maclean found he had to master an advanced technique normally only used by saxophonists and other wind players: circular breathing. It allows musicians to produce a continuous tone without interruption. “It's been a really cool part of my set-up which I don't see a lot of guys using. And I really enjoy the different aspects that it affords me.”

The Nick Maclean Quartet: more in the tradition

In a more traditional approach to jazz, Maclean has another project: his all-acoustic and more mainstream jazz quartet. He plays piano or occasionally Fender Rhodes in the quartet, along with Ali on trumpet (his “more sensitive, tone-focused, introspective elements”), Jesse Dietschi on bass, and Tyler Goertzen on drums.

The Nick Maclean Quartet will release its first album this fall. Maclean said they hoped to bring it to Ottawa in November or early December.

“For the most part [I play] purely piano. And that was a very conscious decision because I wanted to present The Nick Maclean Quartet as a very different project from Snaggle. Just to show that there are many different aspects of my musicianship, so that I don't get pigeonholed as the synthesizer guy.”

The quartet's music is inspired by Herbie Hancock's 1960s quartet with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. “We're taking a lot of influences from his albums Maiden Voyage and Empyrean Isles, but we're exploring it with original tunes, also drawing from more modern ideas, so a couple of the tunes groove a little bit more than they swing. We're dealing with odd meters a lot more, odd phrasing, so stuff you didn't quite see quite as much in those two records, though Herbie certainly did explore that kind of stuff to an enormous degree later in his career.”

At the Jazz Bistro in Toronto this month, the quartet played Hancock's music the first night – “his earlier Blue Note swinging stuff in the first set, and then his groovier Headhunters and some of his other later stuff in the second set” – and then played their own tunes on the second night.

Valuing his audience

For Snaggle, Maclean is planning a Snarky Puppy tribute show in Toronto in November, then a much larger project: a European tour in the summer of 2018. He said he was amazed at how much easier it was to book club dates in Germany than it was in Canada – “it's hard out here”.

Which is why Maclean values his audience so much, and keeping in contact with them. On Snaggle's current tour, listeners can get $5 off the cover charge ($10 instead of $15) if they register with the band in advance. It helps the band plan better, and it keeps them in touch.

“Every gig, every fan interaction, the most important thing for me to do is to sign them to the mailing list. A lot of artists don't realize that their most important asset is their mailing list, because that is the direct connection from the artist to their fans. There are too many people who become too reliant on Facebook or Twitter. Facebook is just awful these days! You could 'like' Snaggle's page and Snaggle could post something and then maybe 10% of those people will see the post.”

“Just a couple weeks ago, I was having huge problems inviting people to the Snaggle events for this upcoming tour because Facebook thought I was doing it too quickly, so they locked me out. If your fan-base revolves around those platforms, then if they decide for whatever reason that you shouldn't have access, then you're in trouble.”

His approach to the music business is “from a perspective of fan-building. The idea is that you want to create a career that is going to be sustainable, and a lot of guys in the scene are putting out records and they're not doing anything with them. They record fantastic music and then it sits up on CDBaby and no one listens to it. I view the album as an expensive business card, because I don't expect to make back the fabricating costs from making The Long Slog and then the upcoming quartet album, I certainly don't expect to be making much money off of that. What you do with it is what's going to push your career forward.”

“So it's all about being autonomous and doing it yourself, and building it in a way that fan acquisitions on one gig are going to make it easier to come back to that city and play another gig. Because if you play a gig and the room is filled and you don't get anyone's email, you might not see any one of those cats again. And they might have loved your performance, and they might have been super-excited to be on your mailing list, but if you don't find some way to contact them when you've got stuff coming up, then you're not going to be able to, and it's not going to go.”

And he feels that Snaggle does have that broad appeal: “We tend to be the more funkified acts in the jazz festivals that we've played, or even like in terms of other jazz acts, I think this group is a little bit more accessible to audiences that aren't necessarily super deep into the jazz world. We've done multi-band bills with rock groups, with blues groups, with metal groups, you name it, and because of the energy output of the band and the groove-oriented nature of it, it's able to hang in those spaces in ways that a jazz quartet couldn't. But on the same token, it's also able to hang with the jazz guys because all of the material is coming from that ideology and it's coming from that language.”

Snaggle's 2017 mini-tour:

  • Thursday, August 17: Kingston - The Mansion, 506 Princess Street, 9 p.m.
  • Friday, August 18: Montreal - Resonance Cafe, 55175A Park Avenue, 9 p.m.
  • Saturday, August 19: Ottawa - Avant-Garde Bar, 135 Besserer Street, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, August 26: Toronto - May Cafe, 876 Dundas Street, 9 p.m.

Cover for each show is $15, or $10 if you email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to ask to be placed on the advance list.

Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's previous interview with Nick Maclean: Nick Maclean creates a new sound with Snaggle