Toronto jazz pianist Nick Maclean has taken many lessons from jazz legend Herbie Hancock – not the least about taking risks with his music.

Brownman Ali and Nick Maclean ©Brett Delmage, 2017
In the 1960s, pianist Herbie Hancock and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard created several classic jazz albums together. Nick Maclean (r) is channeling that vibe in his quartet with Brownman Ali (l). ©Brett Delmage, 2017

“The kind of jazz that I really enjoy, that means a lot to me, involves constant risks. It involves exploration. The kind of guys who are playing it safe, and play what they know – it can be very nice sounding, it can check all the right boxes, but there's something courageous about stepping into the unknown and seeing what happens. And Herbie's definitely one of those artists that idealizes that for me.”

Maclean's quartet will perform in Ottawa on Saturday as part of a Ontario/Quebec tour. They’ll play from their debut album, which he describes as a “love letter” to Hancock. The group and the album are inspired by Hancock's 1960s quartet/quintet with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, which produced four classic albums on the Blue Note label: Takin' Off, My Point of View, Maiden Voyage, and Empyrean Isles.

The general vibe is mainstream and acoustic – but with “a willingness to not know what the destination is going to be and just be along for the ride.”

“What we're trying to do with the quartet is to take the ethos of Herbie's 1960s Blue Note Quartet, but move it into the modern day – with modern compositions, with modern sensibility – and see where that ethos goes today.”

Maclean's quartet line-up takes its inspiration from Hancock's line-up on Empyrean Isles: trumpet (with his frequent collaborator Brownman Ali), piano, bass, and drums. It was a rare line-up for Hancock and relatively rare in jazz.

Why did he not include saxophone?

“I really enjoy the sound of trumpet with the quartet. There's something very muscular and very powerful about it. And it's a different kind of sound from the saxophone. I don't know if it's the majority, but certainly a great many quartets and quintets have saxophones in today's jazz – so I wanted something that had a little bit of a different texture.”

The album, Rites of Ascension, opens with the quartet's interpretations of three of Hancock's classic 60s compositions, and closes with another. Some of those tracks are played close to the original, while others are sped up or freshly interpreted in the solos. In between are tunes by Maclean and by Brownman Ali, including two pieces Maclean wrote in response to Hancock's music.

“Sometimes as a fun challenge, I'll take a Herbie Hancock tune that I really enjoy, and I'll try and write my version of it. So 'Nation’s Unrest: A Tribal Conflict' on the album – that's my 'One Finger Snap'. And certainly from an improvising perspective, Herbie's one of those guys that's got such dense harmonic language. As a piano player, it's something that really excites me. Because [with] harmony, I'm always looking for new ways to approach chords, new substitutions, new directions to move things.”

All these different points in jazz history – bebop, avant-garde jazz, cool jazz, jazz fusion – those are all instances of guys saying, 'Well, screw it. I'm going to do something different.' – Nick Maclean

Maclean's tune “One” was similarly created by shaking up Herbie Hancock's “Little One”. In his piece, Maclean used “much more advanced harmonic concepts than were being used on Maiden Voyage or Empyrean Isles. I was using some synthetic scales and more tonal clusters, and stuff that you didn't quite see quite as much then. You can take elements of the past, and then inject new elements.”

The album finishes off with Hancock's “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”, from his Mwandishi period, “as a way to come full circle and close the album, because we play with that arrangement a fair bit on the record. It's a way of tying it all up.”

The spirit of jazz, embodied in Hancock's music

Ottawa-born and raised, Maclean first came to jazz when his grandfather bought him a Fats Waller album. He was most interested in big band music in high school, including playing in the Nepean All-City Jazz Band. It wasn't until he began studying jazz at Humber College that he started listening to more modern jazz artists, including Hancock.

“And Herbie is most definitely a modern jazz artist, but he also has his roots all the way through jazz history as well. So for me he's quite a large figure and quite a large influence. His playing is amazing for so many different reasons, but he had such influence throughout, in many different streams of jazz throughout the years. He was a member in the second great Miles Davis quintet, during the post-bop era; he had his incredibly creative output during that transitional Mwandishi electric period; and then, of course, the Headhunters, when things got a little bit more funkified and earthy.”

“It took me a little while to figure it out, but once I was there, it's amazing stuff!”

Unsurprisingly, when Hancock's quartet played the Ottawa Jazz Festival in June, Maclean was there. “It didn't swing. It was all funkified back beat kind of stuff, but man, the level of communication between the guys on stage and the interaction that was happening between all four of them was mind-blowing and highly inspiring.”

Hancock is also known as a philosopher and advocate for jazz and for global responsibility and a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. He's described himself as (among other things) a “world citizen and peace advocate”. In 2014, he delivered a series of six Norton lectures at Harvard University on the “Ethics of Jazz”.

Maclean opens his album by intoning a quote from those lectures: “Courage. Conviction. Confidence. And Trust. Ethics in Jazz.” Those words spell out what the spirit of jazz is, he says. “And it brings us back to that whole, you're searching for something, you're on-stage with a couple of people, and you're all on a journey together. [Hancock] embodies that, Wayne Shorter's group embodies it, Miles Davis embodies it throughout his entire career. And it's what we're trying to do as a quartet.”

“So it seemed very fitting, especially since the album is in many ways a love letter to Herbie Hancock, to put his words into what we're trying to do.”

Several other tracks also include spoken quotes from Hancock, along with quotes from scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and journalist Christopher Hitchens.

The album also addresses similar peace and conflict issues to those Hancock is concerned with, in particular in the piece “Nation’s Unrest: A Tribal Conflict”. Maclean said that was inspired by “what I think is an increasing polarization in our political dialogue where people are getting farther and farther apart from one another, and lots of folks are more inclined to shout each other down. We're even seeing street fights break out. I think that's a dangerous thing. It's something that's in my thoughts a lot.”

More than “The Synth Guy”

Maclean is best known as leader of the Toronto groove-based, electric-jazz project Snaggle, in which Ali also plays. In contrast, this quartet is acoustic and piano-based – his deliberate choice to avoid being pigeon-holed.

It's an experience Ali had. “He found that when he was getting his start, he was doing a lot of Latin gigs, a lot of Cuban music, a lot of Brazilian music. And he was becoming known as the Latin trumpet player. And there's so much more to his artistry.”

Ali advised Maclean to be careful “if Snaggle's going to be my only thing, because I'm going to get to be known as The Synth Guy. And I love that kind of music, I love that kind of work, but that's not the only thing I'm interested in. So I wanted to put together a quartet that showed off some of my contrasting influences, and that I was going to be able to play much more acoustic piano in.”

Since the album was recorded in May, 2017, the music on it has evolved through playing, Maclean said. “We've taken endings differently, we've inserted sections, we've removed sections – just based on things that happened on the gig. And then the next gig, we'll say, hey, remember what happened last time? Let's do that again, it was fun.”

“And so there's just a natural progression of things that change over time. It's always an interesting experience if you ever have to bring in a sub because you give them the charts and the recording, and then you say, 'OK, but we also do this, this, and this.' ”

Learning from bringing in new musicians

The quartet normally includes bassist Jesse Dietschi and drummer Tyler Goertzen. Neither could make this tour, however, so Maclean has substituted two musicians he met while studying for his Masters at the University of Toronto: Nick Arseneau (bass) and Mike Rajna (drums). “They're both phenomenal players and they picked up on the tunes pretty quickly.”

Rajna, in particular, immediately understood when they explained they liked highly interactive and responsive drumming – “It makes us feel listened to and I find it just peps up the energy, the whole project” – and was “right there with us.”

Maclean said that playing with different musicians is exciting for him “because it gives the tunes a little bit of a different spin, a little bit of a different flavour. And this has happened with Snaggle a lot, because over the years Snaggle has changed from a band with six regular members to a band with two regular members and four chairs that are more rotating subs. I've learned to embrace and in many ways cherish the different takes that different players will have on the different tunes.”

Dietschi couldn't make the quartet's Toronto CD release concert, but they had JUNO-winning bassist Mike Downes fill in. “And yeah, if you're not learning something from Mike Downes then you're doing something wrong!”

And Maclean said he liked putting different musicians' personalities and styles on display: “It's something that Miles used to do with his guys. He basically said, 'Listen. You play like you, you give the music what you think it needs, and I'll tell you if I don't like it.' And so I've pretty much – apart from any orchestrated stuff that's in the tunes – I let these guys go wild, and play what they think the music needs. And then if there's something that I don't like, then I'll say something, but for the most part it happens very infrequently.”

The substitution will mean that the quartet won't be playing any new original tunes on the tour – “We just didn't have any time to prep the new guys on some of the newer tunes” – but they will include other Herbie Hancock material that didn't make it onto the album.

One foot in the past and one firmly in the future

Jazz musicians need to know the tradition – musicians like Hancock who came before them – in order to move forward, Maclean said. One of his students recently encountered Miles Davis' Bitches Brew for the first time, and didn't know what to make of it. “I said to him that there's this whole piece of jazz history we're missing between what I sent you to listen to and where Bitches Brew is. So in order to make sense of that, we have to fill in the gaps and see what happened in those years.”

“Jazz has a canon. Jazz has a history. And in order to become a part of that history, you need to understand what came before. Just as it's important to be influenced by it, it's also important to just say, 'Screw it! This is how it was then, and now I'm going to do my own thing.' All these different points in jazz history – bebop, avant-garde jazz, cool jazz, jazz fusion – those are all instances of guys saying, 'Well, screw it. I'm going to do something different.' ”

“So we need both. We need one foot in the past looking to see what came before us, but then one foot firmly in the future looking ahead at what's going to come, because the music of yesterday has already been played, it's already been performed.”

Digging into the minds of composers and performers of the past – as Maclean has done with this album – is useful because it allows musicians to be be better grounded in the tradition. “I think it's less useful to live there, the way that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JALC) does. I get that that's not everyone's mentality, but that's how I view it and that's how I want my artistry to be always – one foot planted in the tradition, but always looking forward to what's coming next.”

The Nick Maclean Quartet 2018 summer tour

The Nick Maclean Quartet (Nick Maclean, piano; Brownman Ali, trumpet; Nick Arseneau, bass; Mike Rajna, drums) will perform at the Avant-Garde Bar in Ottawa, on Saturday, August 18 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. Admission is $15 at the door, or $10 if you email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to be put on the advance list. The Avant-Garde Bar is located at 135 1/2 Besserer Street, one block south of Rideau Street and just east of Dalhousie Street. It's a short walk from the Mackenzie King Transitway Station, and OC Transpo local routes 4, 6, 7, 11, 12, 14, and 18 stop nearby.

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