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Album Review, Atlanta Audio Society

This Mélange has many colors, the album seems to breathe the air of wide open spaces and boundless possibilities

Dean McNeill has subtitled Mélange "New Music for Trumpet and Piano." The key word here is "new," for in this album McNeill and several of his friends explore the borderland where jazz and classical genres meet and coexist happily. Perhaps it is fitting that McNeill himself teaches at the University of Saskatchewan, in the Canadian prairie province of that name, for as with a prairie, Mélange seems to breathe the air of wide open spaces and boundless possibilities.

Fortunately, the trumpet, McNeill's instrument, is equally at home in both the jazz and the classical media, swimming freely in both streams without losing any of its character.

On this album he has two superb pianists as partners, Bonnie Nicholson in the classical pieces and Jon Ballantyne in the jazz tracks. The classical pieces, which seem to grow more noticeably jazz-inflected as we get further into the program, are, in order, Allan Gililand's grandly imposing Concerto for Trumpet (1993), Elizabeth Raum's wide-ranging Variations for Trumpet and Piano (2006), which is her seamlessly imaginative re-writing of an original work for flute and piano, and David McIntyre's intriguing Sonata for Trumpet (1990), whose movements are entitled "Mystery-Game-Mystery-Game." The last classical piece, Aria for Trumpet (2006) by David Kaplan, lifts us up and carries us off, as an aria should do.

The jazz numbers, interspersed with the classical, are richly varied in style, mood and harmony. They include original compositions, free improvisations, and a pair of evergreen jazz standards. The title of McNeill's Fall in may sound like an army sergeant's command, but the intimate mood created by his trumpet lets us know that "falling in love" is what the piece is really about. Fluze Blues is a deliciously quirky improv based on the 12-bar blues form of that name (and not on the fact that Dean was in fact sick with the flu when recording the jazz portion of the program, something you would never guess from the smart inflections and sweetly glowing tones that he cultivates). Spacious, Restless World, and Outergate were improvised during the jazz sessions by McNeill and Ballantyne and named after the fact. The title of the last-named seems appropriate, as it is the most outré of the three in its flavorful dissonances. But each of the three does a bit of envelope-pushing in its own way, as does McNeill's composition Intro (2007).

McNeill and Ballantyne go back to the Forties for two jazz standards, Billy Eckstine's I Want to Talk about You (1940), which seems new and refreshing to each new generation of musicians and jazz fans who discover it, and the Jack Lawrence/Walter Gross Tenderly (1946), a sentimental favorite that never seems to outstay its welcome no matter how often we've heard it.

The program concludes with a charming Lullaby, which McNeill describes as having been co-written with his daughter Phoebe Deanne McNeill when her mother Jennifer was recovering from her delivery on May 17, 2007. Since Phoebe was still no more than five months old when McNeill recorded the jazz tracks on October 15-16, she must have been precocious indeed! Whatever means Phoebe used to communicate her part of the collaboration, Lullaby is the real thing - straight from the heart, as all good jazz must be.


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