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.

And seasoned performers they truly are—most of the members have been playing since they were toddlers. Lee began learning piano when he was two and Nguyen, Bowlus and Edwards started, also with piano, when they were five. The others have similar backgrounds. All pursued musical educations with a strong emphasis on jazz and now, in their early 20s, the members of the JCO are accomplished composers and arrangers, as well as performers.

The accolades and awards they've already collected individually are impressive and the roster of jazz legends and recording artists they've played with reads like a jazz hall of fame. They've performed at clubs and festivals throughout the world and are looking forward to taking the JCO on the road in the future.

The surprising thing about the JCO is the amazing lack of ego with all of that talent. "We're all about the music," says Nguyen. "Each of the players is a great musician. We trust each other and can feel intuitively where the music is taking us. It's about connecting with each other and with the audience."

"The thing I enjoy about the band the most," Edwards added, "is the quality of music coming from each member in the band. It's always special for me to play with these guys. I think it inspires all of us. There is a kind of joyful energy that we feel, and I've heard from the audience that they can feel, and actually see it too. It amazes me, because when we play, I can feel how it felt in the '30s and '40s when big bands were everywhere and really popular. The music is still so powerful— and relevant!"

While such talented young musicians may have their choice of musical genres to pursue, the members of the JCO say the emotional and expressive nature of jazz attracted them.

"I'm not sure if I chose jazz or if it chose me," answers Lee. "It is something that I have always been in love with since a little kid. I was very lucky to have parents that encouraged me to follow my passion no matter what it was or how much money or commercial success it would bring me."

"Compared to other genres of music," Bowlus reflects, "Jazz is the purest expression of human emotion. It's very spiritual, and has the ability to affect people of all ages. Jazz swings and makes you want to dance. Jazz is romantic and sentimental and can make you cry. The more you get involved with the jazz art form, the more you love it."

Adkins takes exception to the conventional wisdom that jazz is declining. "I personally don't believe jazz is a dying art form. I believe it is going through some changes," he says. He credits the schools—UNF and other jazz studies programs throughout the country with playing a key role in keeping jazz alive. "Not only is it growing in musical terms, but the number of people who appreciate jazz is certainly growing as well."

"Jazz isn't dying," Edwards insists. "In fact, I'm willing to bet it's one of the only art forms with the musical integrity to further withstand the test of time. Just because jazz isn't necessarily what's being fed to the public by media distributors doesn't mean it's dying and it doesn't mean the audience wouldn't dig it if they heard it.

"When an audience hears our band swing, they can feel it. I believe that being a jazz musician demands all the faculties of any great musician, regardless of genre," he added. "Besides the emphasis on improvisation, all the members of the JCO have arranged for the ensemble. For us, jazz is perhaps the only art form where we can fully satisfy our musical needs."

"Hopefully, we can do our part to keep jazz alive," Bowlus adds. "Jazz is definitely not as popular as other genres of music, but it should be. I agree with Robert that it doesn't get enough exposure. Most people don't get enough education about this wonderful art form to even know what it is all about. All of us are planning on being dedicated to the music for our entire lives, and hopefully we can inspire other up and coming jazz musicians."

The group plans to continue performing and recording together. Two years after creating the JCO, the members of the group are doing their own musical things in different parts of the country, in addition to performing with the band.

Bowlus is the only one who continues to reside in Jacksonville, where he performs locally and nationally with his own group. Zettlemoyer is working on his masters in composition at the University of South Florida in Tampa under composer and pianist Chuck Owen. Fratti is pursing his master's degree at New Jersey City University where he's studying with saxophonist Bob Malach.

LoRe, who lives in Boston, recently graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music where he studied with George Garzone and Frank Carlberg. He'll be attending graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music where he'll continue to study with Garzone.

The active New York Jazz scene and the outstanding educational opportunities therein convinced several of the JCO members to trade in their flip-flops for winter coats. Nguyen just received his master's degree from SUNY-Purchase, where he studied under acclaimed trumpeter Jon Faddis. Lee, who was one of the first students enrolled in Julliard's Jazz Studies program, was recently appointed director of the Jazz Orchestra.

Also at Julliard, Sikivie just earned his master's degree in music and Edwards is studying with trombone master Steve Turre.

Just as they expected when they left their college days behind, they've gone their separate ways. And just as they planned, the Jazz Conceptions Orchestra continues to be the nexus that keeps the group in touch with each other.

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