The Avant-Garde Bar, Ottawa
Saturday, August 19, 2017 – 8 to 11:30 p.m.
Partway through Snaggle's first set on Saturday, I looked around the Avant-Garde Bar and noticed something out of the ordinary in the crowd: no phones and no talking. Every face was turned toward the stage and everyone was listening intently.
And that's what this Toronto-based jazz fusion band deserved. It was an attention-grabbing show, mixing high-quality musicianship with complex compositions, and enhancing it all with friendly communication with the audience.
Snaggle is led by keyboard player Nick Maclean, who grew up in Ottawa, and was a frequent face on this city's jazz scene before he moved to Toronto. The band reflects his own diverse fusion of interests: jazz, of course, but also other beats and different electronic effects. In this, he's joined by trumpeter Brownman Ali, who produced the group's latest album, and performed with them on Saturday. Ali could play straight and beautiful trumpet lines, but also several times ran his instrument through an effects generator for a punctuated, electric-guitar-like sound.
The result: music which could be raw and seriously groove out, but which could also be nuanced and lovely.
In other respects, though, it wasn't a standard Snaggle show, because most of the band's regular members weren't able to make this mini-tour. Maclean substituted in other Toronto players for the rhythm section (Brad Cheeseman on bass, Riley O'Connor on drums, and Anoop Isac on guitar), plus Ottawa saxophonist Richard Page on tenor. While Maclean and Ali were clearly comfortable and familiar with the material, several of the other musicians had their eyes glued to their charts.
Nevertheless, the group created a powerfully unified sound throughout the show. Page and Ali, in particular, worked well together, blending their instruments into a compelling front line. On “Other Fascination”, for example, the two together created a rich melody over Maclean's slow and shimmering keyboards. (And in case anyone was wondering if this really was a jazz show, Maclean introduced that tune by saying it was written in the Mixolydian flat 3 / flat 6 scale.)
Maclean made it easier to appreciate the music by introducing and explaining the origins of each tune. He told the audience that “Bassface”, for example, was inspired by the snarl on the face of the band's regular bassist, Doug Moore, when he really gets into the music. “Christmas Tune” was Maclean's sarcastic and intense response to “sappy, happy, crappy” holiday music. “Lagaan” reflected the optimism and “fighting human spirit” in a Japanese anime television series. All the pieces were Snaggle originals: the majority from their latest album, The Long Slog, and a few from earlier albums.
There was a large dynamic range in the show, and even within individual tunes, from fluid and bright, to gentle and atmospheric, to forceful and urgent dance music, to atonal and threatening. I particularly enjoyed “Track 5”, with its haunting sax, keyboards, and trumpet sections; the Pat Metheny-like anthemic feel and room for exploration in “Lagaan”; and Ali's fusillade of trumpet notes and the joint sax-trumpet fanfares in “Theorum”.
For Snaggle, Maclean plays his own home-brew system, consisting of a laptop, MIDI controller, breath controller, and talk-box – rather than standard keyboards. The difference is not that obvious in performance, where it sounds simply like a super-flexible keyboard with many different modes. But it was very effective and responsive in quickly switching sounds and changing dynamics and giving him the exact sound he needed.
There were places where I thought the music was too loud for too long – particularly when my notebook started vibrating in my hands from the sound (and I was sitting well back in the room). At times the drama in the music also verged on grandiloquence. On the other hand, I really liked the energy and enthusiasm of the playing, the internal cohesion of the compositions, and how well the contributions of each of the musicians combined to create the multi-layered music.
The band closed with “The Long Slog”, a propulsive piece with a Hammond B3 base and a trumpet-saxophone extravaganza floating above. The audience, which had been enthusiastic throughout, responded with very strong applause, and many stuck around afterwards to chat.
Snaggle gave Ottawa a memorable evening of intense performances and well-written music, and attracted a crowd which packed the bar. I'm looking forward to hearing Maclean and Ali again later this fall in a different style, when Maclean returns to Ottawa with his Herbie Hancock-influenced jazz quartet – more mainstream, but still with a touch of groove.
(Songs by Nick Maclean unless otherwise noted)
- Snaggle #7
- Other Fascination
- Christmas Tune
- Bassface (Doug Moore)
- Track 5
- Nonuhno (Doug Moore)
- Sad Ritual
- The Long Slog
Read more about Snaggle’s music and band members: Nick Maclean and Snaggle embrace ideas from diverse eras and styles