Brownman Ali with the Nicholas Maclean Quartet ©Brett Delmage, 2018
Brownman Ali's "The Madness of Nero” was a show-stopper in the Nick Maclean Quartet's Ottawa show ©Brett Delmage, 2018

The Nick Maclean Quartet
Avant-Garde Bar, Ottawa
Saturday, August 18, 2018 – 8 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Herbie Hancock has always had an earthy and rhythmic bottom to his jazz. Not for him the highly refined and quiet piano trio; he performs jazz that speaks to both the body and mind, and combines the talents of his entire band. And this ethos was also plainly audible in the Nick Maclean Quartet's mid-August show in Ottawa, as they played from their debut album, a tribute to Hancock.

The quartet's front line – Maclean on electric piano and Brownman Ali on trumpet – is the same as Maclean's other jazz project, the electric groove group Snaggle. But this group had a different sound: still energetic and driving, but crisper and cleaner and essentially acoustic. Maclean contributed expressive piano lines and dense harmony; Ali's trumpet lines were sometimes floating and serene, sometimes brash and exclamatory; Nick Arseneau's rounded and rich double bass solos could be light and airy, or deeply resonant; Mike Rajna kept the group's momentum up with slashing drum lines, and enhanced ballads like “Feral Serenity” with barely-there cymbal and snare taps.

The group's set list contained more Hancock tunes than usual, perhaps because Arseneau and Rajna were sitting in for the group's regular rhythm section on this tour. Some, like the gentle “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” or the summery “Driftin'”, the quartet played simply and warmly, just enjoying the vibe. With others, like “Cantaloupe Island” or “One Finger Snap”, they took apart the groove and rearranged it in their own voices. But in all cases, they extracted and retained the essence of the tunes.

Of the quartet's originals, Maclean's “Nation’s Unrest: A Tribal Conflict” was a highlight, an impassioned piece which used dissonance and fierce vibrating lines to exemplify the unresolved conflicts in modern politics. Ali's “The Madness of Nero” was a show-stopper, closing their first set with jagged and martial lines, a pounding and intense chronicle of the Roman emperor's descent into insanity.

Maclean makes a point of connecting to his audience, explaining each song and introducing the band. Saturday's audience – which filled the bar for the first set – responded in kind, absorbed in the music and applauding strongly throughout.

The quartet's closing piece, Maclean's “Elasticity of Time and Space”, was the most fusion-like of the night. For that song – and several others in the evening – I was wishing I was sitting further back because I felt the group was a bit too loud for the relatively-small bar. A sound level that wouldn't be a problem in a larger room or outdoors sometimes left me with ringing ears. I don't want this group to lose any of its fine intensity or propulsion, but if it had played just a bit more softly, I would have enjoyed it even more.

Set list:

Set 1

  1. The Eye of the Hurricane (Herbie Hancock)
  2. Cantaloupe Island (Herbie Hancock)
  3. Goldberg Machine (Nick Maclean)
  4. Nation’s Unrest: A Tribal Conflict (Nick Maclean)
  5. Feral Serenity (Nick Maclean)
  6. Driftin' (Herbie Hancock)
  7. The Madness of Nero (Brownman Ali)

Set 2

  1. Tell Me a Bedtime Story (Herbie Hancock)
  2. One Finger Snap (Herbie Hancock)
  3. Dolphin Dance (Herbie Hancock)
  4. Elasticity of Time and Space (Nick Maclean)

Read our interview with Nick Maclean about his Quartet and this tribute album to Herbie Hancock: Nick Maclean performs a love letter to Herbie Hancock