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Album Review, by Ray Baril, Director of the MacEwan College Jazz Ensemble

Prairie Fire, musical depth and maturity evident in playing and composition

After four recorded ventures as director of the University of Saskatchewan Jazz Ensemble, Dean McNeill makes his first outing as director, composer, arranger, and project manager of his own ensemble made up of some of Canada's finest jazz innovators.

"With the quality of this, Dean McNeill's first solo outing, I anxiously await the ones to follow. Bravo!"

— Ray Baril, Director of the MacEwan College Jazz Ensemble

With the plethora of big band recordings being produced as of late, I was struck upon the first listening of Dean McNeill's most recent recording, Prairie Fire, with the musical depth and maturity that was evident in both the playing and the composition. Often what is lost in much of today's big band music is a sincere recognition of the traditions that have come before and a real honest effort to create compositions that provide musical interest, great solo moments, variety in instrumental color and a writing style that is fresh and unique. Dean's music engages both the listener and performer and requires much more than a passive involvement in the music.

Prairie Fire is a collection of eleven selections, seven of which are McNeill originals with the other four being Dean's arrangements. Dean has brought together names like Campbell Ryga, Kelly Jefferson, Mike Herriott, Brian O'Kane, Hugh Fraser, Mike Rud and Mike Downes, all soloists in their own right. Their contributions help to fully realize Dean's musical material with their own interpretive and musical skills.

Dean's influences are evident but not overt. You hear Ellington, Basie, Kenton, and Akiyoshi along with Canadian influences the likes of McConnell and Banks. Charts like Reflections have hints of the early Mintzer big band and clearly point to some of the great music that has been attributed to the University of North Texas jazz program, Dean's Alma Mater. Tracks like Vasquez and Daze have a multi-layered quality that is evident in big band arrangers, the likes of Bill Holman and Bob Brookmeyer. The simplicity and beauty of charts like Fall-In, Everyday Living and Gratitude clearly point to instrumental colors found in the writing of people like Maria Schneider.

From the opening track, Reflections, to the closing track, All of You, I was constantly reminded of the level of virtuosity that is present in the Canadian jazz scene. The caliber of performance and musical innovation is of the highest level. It is hard to identify the definitive solo moment on the recording. Each and every track contains great solo work by the many musical contributors, but do take a careful listen to the solo work of Mike Rud on For Sonny, Campbell Ryga on Fall-In and All of You, Mark DeJong on Vasquez, Brian O'Kane on Everyday Living and Brian and Kelly Jefferson on Daze.

Kudos go out to Dean and sound engineer, Wayne Giesbrecht for producing a recording that sounds natural, balanced and clearly mixed. With the quality of this, Dean McNeill's first solo outing, I anxiously await the ones to follow. Bravo!

- Review by Ray Baril, Director of the MacEwan College Jazz Ensemble, and Head of Winds at MacEwan College

+ Visit Ray Baril's MacEwan College web page


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