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The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra: The Best is Yet to Come

Barbara Salter Nelson By

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For many people, the bonds forged at college serve as the foundation for lifelong friendships; bonds that often keep like- minded friends committing to get together once in awhile to share passions.

The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra (JCO) was created along these lines, but instead of getting together for the occasional game of golf or fishing, whenever these guys get together they put down some great music. And now, the JCO is beginning to make an important mark on today's jazz scene.

Since its inception in '07, the JCO has performed for appreciative audiences in Florida, Georgia and New York. Earlier this year, the group debuted its first CD, The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra (151 Records, 2009), at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. The disc is getting a lot of airplay and has generated rave reviews from jazz lovers, performers and critics.

All but one of the band members met while they were students in the Jazz Studies Program at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., under the tutelage of the legendary saxophonist Bunky Green.

"The JCO was founded on friendship," explains Jeremy Fratti. "Alex Nguyen, Alex LoRe, Matt Zettlemoyer and I were out one night and we struck upon an idea to start a band.

"It originally was meant to be a way to stay in touch and continue to play together, because we'd soon be splitting up to pursue our own careers. That actually still holds true; we probably would hardly ever see each other if it wasn't for the JCO."

"We really enjoyed playing together in the school environment, but we wanted to do more than just play in school," LoRe adds. "It was a way for us to not only strengthen our musical friendships, but also to be able to play whatever music moved us."

They decided to form a big band because it's the ideal format to explore and showcase their vast talent, skills and abilities.

"In addition to performing together, we wanted to write all our own arrangements and compositions so that the band can develop and evolve to have our own distinct voice," explains Zettlemoyer.

The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra consists of Nguyen and Brandon Lee on trumpet and flugelhorn; Robert Edwards on trombone; LoRe on alto sax and flute; Fratti on tenor saxophone and flute; Zettlemoyer on baritone sax, tenor sax and flute, Joshua Bowlus on piano; Paul Sikivie on bass; and Ben Adkins on drums. Three other UNF alums—guitarist Ryan Rosello, baritone sax man Ryan Weisheit, and trumpet player Scott Dickinson—are also members of the JCO who add their special talents when the opportunity and geography are right.

Lee, the newest member of the group and the only non-UNF alumnus, joined the group in '08. "I met Brandon shortly after I moved to New York," says Nguyen, the leader of the group. "He sat in with us on a few performances and he fit in with the group perfectly.

"The members of the band inspire each other," Nguyen continues. "We've got different personalities and individual styles, but we're all deeply passionate about the music and have tremendous respect for each other."

The passion and respect are apparent in their live performances and on their CD. It's also clear that the group really enjoys performing together; the chemistry is contagious. Most notable, however, is its innate talent and extraordinary musicianship.

The JCO honors the legacy of jazz through its fresh, imaginative arrangements of jazz standards and isn't afraid to take risks by taking on tunes outside of the typical jazz genre—like performing its own hot and distinctive version of The Beatles' "Come Together." The group also performs its original music and enjoys writing pieces to showcase each member's styles. And the JCO loves to improvise—every solo is a unique adventure.

"That's what jazz is all about," Nguyen comments. "There's so much opportunity for interpretation and improvisation. You're not limited to a predetermined script. We go wherever the music takes us."

"Every time we play," says Zettlemoyer, "the guys in the band have a lot of fun. The audience feeds off our energy and we feed off them in return. That is the most organic and rewarding feeling an artist can experience."

The JCO, by all definitions, is a big band with a strong focus on swing. "Swing is infectious," says Nguyen, "and when it's really happening you're in another place."

Soft-spoken and unassuming, Nguyen grins as he describes how people in the audience often comment on his moves during a performance. "They tell me they like that 'little bop you did up there.' That's the only time you'll see me dancing! I can't dance but when we're really playing, it's impossible not to move with the energy."

Whether playing a timeless classic or one of their own compositions, these versatile young musicians take each chart and make it their own with a deep sensitivity and artistic finesse that belies their youth. These guys put it out there with the confidence and polish of seasoned performers.

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