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“Getting back into the swing of things” - Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra is 2023 NSMZ Group of the Year

By Scott Roos

photos by Deanna Roos



What a long, strange trip it was. For wind instrument players, work in bands, orchestras, and classrooms pretty stopped during the pandemic. Instruments like trumpets, saxophones, trombones, were deemed unsafe due to the emission of droplets that could potentially spread COVID19. Granted, there were small opportunities here and there under extremely protective conditions, but those were few and far between. Suffice to say, unless you were in the comfort of your own home, taking a private Zoom lesson or some sort of online band camp or masterclass, you weren’t doing much playing. During this time, activity within the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra (SJO), out of an abundance of caution, ground to a screaching halt only returning to action in August of 2021 when restrictions began to lift and the music was deemed safe to proceed.. 


“Covid was tough in lots of ways. There was a firm beginning to it but there was never a firm end to it,” recalled SJO artistic director Dean McNeill in a recent telephone interview with NSMZ,  “So we've been slowly kind of recuperating, getting back into the swing of things, getting going with projects, restarting things, getting our chops back together, and rebuilding relationships.”


"This (past) fall feels like the old days in a good way,” McNeill continued, “People are out and about, they're having fun…. It's a happy time to be back around and out and about in our community and we're just so excited to be playing some really great music again.”


With the pandemic now seemingly in the rearview, 2023 was a  fantastic year for the SJO, with some truly amazing concerts under their proverbial belts. McNeill highlights the Jens Lindemann “Rhapsody in Blue” concert, the “Pictures at an Exhibition: Reimagined” concert with guest conductor/arranger Fred Stride, playing the jazz festival mainstage with guest vocalist Alexis Normand, performing Ellington’s sacred works with Dee Daniels, and the interesting combining of math and jazz during the “Hyperbolic Band” concert among his 2023 highlights. 




“We focus on quality over quantity. We're not trying to do like 97 gigs a year or whatever. Every few months doing something really special is the idea,” McNeill told NSMZ. 


“One of the things that I said at the beginning of the math and jazz concert was ‘could the thing that we're thinking about happen without our involvement and if the answer is yes we should not do it.’ In other words, (the SJO) should be doing stuff that adds value that no one else would touch with a ten foot pole for whatever reason. If you look at all the things we've done over the years, that is kind of a through line.”


In short, for being an integral part of the music community in Saskatchewan by taking those musical risks, the SJO is a very worthy NSMZ “Group of the Year” winner for 2023. Since returning to the fold in August of 2021, they’ve brought in internationally renowned guests, highlighted local talent, commissioned and performed creative and thought provoking works, all in the midst of rebuilding the band to a prepandemic state. They are doing, and will continue to do, great things and for this they deserve recognition.


For those that have yet to see the SJO do their thing, or for those that are simply hungry for more made in in the SK big band performances, there are two gig left in their 2023 schedule. This Saturday. December 16th will be the "My Favourite Things: The Nutcracker Suite & More" featuring local singer Tatrina Tai. On New Years Eve will be the band's gala event at TCU Place aptly titled "A Night to Remember" featuring vocalists Jessica Robinson, Graham Dyck and Jillian Ramsay. For more information on these events, click HERE.

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