Jazz vet earning raves

by Andrew Mullins

Jazz trumpeter and McGill music professor Kevin Dean (Photo: Daniel Haber)

Kevin Dean has been around long enough to know you can’t take anything for granted in the music business. With a new record recently making critics’ best of the year lists – A Message from the Dean was hailed as extraordinary and timeless in Le Devoir, while the Ottawa Citizen praised its "warm, distinctive, incisive music" – the veteran jazz trumpet player is getting some long overdue props.

But 10 years ago, Dean wondered whether his trumpet career might be over. While the McGill jazz professor hardly qualifies as old at 58, the trumpet places some cruel physical demands on a musician. Tiny muscles in the face and lips are subjected to extraordinary pressure. Eventually, most players have to lay the horn down.

“Piano players last forever. 85 years old and still playing great. There are almost no 85-year-old trumpet players.”

Dean had noticed his embouchure seemed to be going. Blowing one phrase he sounded fine, while in the next he lost control. Little did he know that a small piece of leather he had wrapped round the trumpet’s lead pipe was hiding a hole the size of a pencil tip. “I was completely baffled. I thought, ‘Okay, this is what happens, things start to go haywire.’ But after about six months, I took that leather piece off and found that hole. I must've laughed for week.”

Dean’s music is rooted in the hard bop tradition of the fifties and sixties, and his latest CD boasts a traditional sound but features all original compositions, with Dean backed by fellow McGill jazz prof André White, MMus'90, on piano, and McGill graduates and Schulich School of Music instructors Alec Walkington, BMus'90, MMus'96, on bass and Dave Laing, BA'95, on drums, musicians he’s been playing with for 25 years.

Dean’s gorgeous tone and melodic inventiveness shine through on every track. His list of influences is long – he cites Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Horace Silver and Kenny Dorham, among many others – and fans of contemporary jazz informed by this classic period will find much to enjoy.

The disc is dedicated to Dean’s late father. Richard Dean was a farmer and an amateur saxophone player, part of a strong family background in music for Kevin as he grew up outside Mason City, Iowa, which also included his uncle Allan Dean, a fellow trumpeter who is today a music professor at Yale. Jazz rang through the farmhouse, and musical education was part of everyday life.

It still is for Dean, who was hired to start the jazz studies program at McGill back in the mid-eighties. The program quickly drew aspiring young jazz musicians from across Canada and has since grown into one of the best in North America. Student musicians today are “so far ahead of where I was at their age. They’ve got all this information at their fingertips and they can take advantage of it.”

The influence of the program reaches out across the country’s jazz scenes. “Go to any concert series in any city and you’re going to run across some McGill students,” says Dean. “We've got a very good program that attracts good people and I just hope that they remember us well when they're rich and famous. Especially rich.”

Dean returned to the studio in March to record a quintet record, and will also be working with his wife – Academy Award-winning animated filmmaker Torill Kove, MUP'89 – providing the soundtrack for her latest short film, as he has done with her past works.

In the meantime, trumpet fans can listen to A Message from the Dean and be glad he thought to remove that piece of leather.

“I still keep trying to get better on the trumpet,” he says. “I think I’ve got a few years in me yet.”

Click here to listen to portions of the songs on Kevin Dean's latest CD