The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra
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The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra

Jacksonville, Florida, United States

Jacksonville, Florida, United States
Band Jazz Jazz


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"The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra: The Best is Yet to Come"

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 Turré.

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.

By Barbara Salter Nelson, June 24 2009
- All About Jazz

"Alex Nguyen's Jazz Conceptions Orchestra Meets Annie Sellick"

Here's a music tip you can take to the bank. If you ever have an opportunity to grab a performance by Alex Nguyen's Jazz Conceptions Orchestra, go, even if it means canceling a dinner date with 'er Majesty, Queen Elizabeth or a spin around Daytona Speedway with Dale Junior. And if Annie Sellick, an incomparable jazz vocalist from Nashville, is on the card, give up your first-born for a ticket.

Nguyen's Jazz Conceptions Orchestra and the estimable Ms. Sellick heated up a chilly Friday night in Palm Coast, FL with a special concert at the Trinity Presbyterian Church. Sitting in with the orchestra during this gig was Brandon Lee, a trumpet player from Wynton Marsalis' Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

When the show opened with Billy Strayhorn's “Take the A Train," the two hundred or so jazz fans in the church sanctuary knew their prayers were answered; it was going to be a swinging, rocking night. Alex Lore's alto sax solo drove the piece hard. The band paid homage to the church setting, settling down into the traditional “Let Us Break Bread Together," featuring a moving Nguyen solo, and then sliding into a rousing “This Little Light of Mine." And then the program lifted off in earnest as this slim girl with a huge voice sashayed down the center aisle belting out the tune and taking the audience with her. By the next tune, Harold Arlen's “As Long as I Live," everyone there knew that Annie Sellick had arrived on the scene and would not be leaving soon. Sellick and the Nguyen's Jazz Conceptions Orchestra were synergy (not to mention energy) personified. Next came Fred Rausch's “Answer Me" followed by Cole Porter's “I Love Paris," which featured Ryan Weisheit on baritone sax. Sellick then morphed into Rosemary Clooney, knocking the audience out with “Mambo Italiano."

The band went back to the BeBop era, opening the second set with “Tadd's Delight." Sellick's voice was a perfect complement to the band's versatile and intricate arrangements bringing jazz standards into the 21st Century with guts and finesse. It was hard to believe that this was the first gig they'd shared. Sellick's rendition of Lionel Bart's “Where is Love?" arranged by Nguyen was as heartfelt as when Georgia Brown sang it in “Oliver," an enduring Broadway hit. And, if that didn't bring tears to the audience's eyes, when Alex and Annie paid tribute to the Brothers Gershwin with their moving duet on “But Not for Me," the interplay between the two young luminaries was pure magic. The eloquently romantic mood continued with the delicate ballad, Chelsea Bridge. The arrangement tipped a respectful hat to Strayhorn's interesting harmonic concept while Annie's haunting interpretation of the melody gave the tune an intriguing edge. The spirit of Johnny Mercer joined in to kick the energy back up with a memorable rendition of what should be Sellick's signature tune, “Accentuate the Positive." And, as the song says, it was clear that Alex Nguyen's Jazz Conceptions Orchestra and Annie Sellick did not mess with “Mr. In-between." At the end of the performance, the appreciative audience was ready to take the A-Train to Kokopelli's Night Club in Savannah. GA where Alex Nguyen's Jazz Conceptions Orchestra, with their new best friend the incredible Annie Sellick would be performing the next evening.

By Steve Blickstein, February 14 2008
- All About Jazz

"Album Review"

It's nice work if you can get it, or so the tune goes, but it's also no secret that the jazz big band isn't nearly as common as it was during the heyday of swing. That's not to say that some large groups aren't making music today, but frequently, the contemporary big band serves merely as a tribute to a bygone era, an attempt at resurrecting an older style and aesthetic. Whether the end result is a tasteful yet restrained homage or a regrettable detour into kitsch, today's big band often fails to strike a balance between honoring tradition, embracing the present, and expanding the idiom.

It is indeed remarkable that the Jazz Conceptions Orchestra has established such a strong reputation for itself during an age in which bandleaders and club owners favor smaller performance formats. However, this group is distinguished not by the increasing scarcity of its chosen configuration, but rather by the tremendous versatility of its members. Their collaborative ethos and palpable delight in the music they make together engage the listener—and these musicians make no effort to conceal either the joy the music inspires within them or their desire to share it with their audience.

The band's repertoire is firmly rooted in swing, but this traditional vocabulary is enunciated with a distinctly modern inflection, breathing new life into standards by way of original arrangements that are neither overly calculated nor insufficiently structured. And unlike many big bands of the past, the Jazz Conceptions Orchestra possesses no Billy Strayhorn or Neil Hefti figure, a composer-arranger whose individual sensibilities plot the artistic course of the group. The variety of mood and expression presented both live and on this record owes to the contributions of all nine members, who share the responsibilities of selecting and arranging tunes and developing new material.

This sense of partnership and shared enjoyment is at the core of the band's message. It's been nearly two years since their initial gigs in Jacksonville, Florida, but they haven't stopped having fun and growing as an ensemble. Conceived of as a way to keep in touch and support each other after college, the Orchestra became a testing ground for its members' personal projects and quickly gained critical acclaim playing to packed houses for regular gigs at Kokopelli's Jazz Club in Savannah, Georgia. More recently, the band has been invited for repeat engagements at New York's Iridium, performances which have also met with considerable praise.

While this record is marked by spirited solo playing from everyone, it is perhaps the tight, inventive ensemble passages that are most indicative of this group's unique clarity of voice. Listening to the Orchestra wail in unison on the out head to "Better Go," one is struck not just by the confident swagger of their style, but also by the sheer pleasure they take in it. They invite the listener to swing, too, and who could possibly refuse such an offer? - David Cantor-Echols

"Album Review 2"

I am thrilled to write the liner notes for this record because of the long association I have with the members of The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra, most of whom are products of the University of North Florida Jazz Program, where I teach. Two of the eight tracks on this date are originals, and all of the songs were arranged by members of the group. The material covers a wide emotional range and is complemented by highly artistic, creative improvisation. In short, these cats can play! There's a lot more here than mere flash. I'm certain that you will discover what I discovered: substance. My thoughts were, fresh, pensive, hypnotic and sensitive.

Listen to Alex LoRe's arrangement of John Coltrane's "Moment’s Notice". The meter changes and the purposeful harmonic blur are on the cutting edge. LoRe’s alto and Brandon Lee’s trumpet display contrasting approaches to a standard while enmeshing themselves within the broader architecture of this fresh arrangement.

Matt Zettlemoyer's "Changes" tells the story of someone who is truly going through a transition and ultimately finds peace and tranquility. The ultimate return of the original theme brings about catharsis and a sense of newly regained calm. Alex Nguyen, the band’s leader, and LoRe give an excellent reading of this cycle of tension and release.

Nguyen also arranged Miles Davis’s "Flamenco Sketches," which receives a sensitive treatment from Lee’s flugelhorn and Joshua Bowlus’ piano, both of which glide with the current of Nguyen’s lush horn lines.

Zettlemoyer also arranged Jimmy Heath's "Gemini". The flute and muted trumpet provide color that brings an airy freshness to the whole. The solos range from straight ahead bebop to Alex Lore's doing that wonderful futuristic outside thing. Believe me, all bases were covered.

"A Morning Walk", written and arranged by Alex LoRe, is a totally different way of addressing the traditional harmonic fabric. The standard eighteenth-century harmonic cues found in bebop do not apply here. This way of thinking permeates LoRe’s playing and arranging. Alex Nguyen shows that he is comfortable in this less conventional environment as well. His soloing does great justice to a great tune.

The imagery conjured up by Alex LoRe's arrangement of "Parisian Thoroughfare" recalls the busy streets of Paris, where darting little cars jockey for space while people in sidewalk cafes add their chatter to the mix, creating an intensely exciting environment. Alex Nguyen’s solo matches the mood beautifully. Nguyen uses the bebop vocabulary with great ease and cat-like agility. Bassist Paul Sikivie's solo has the fluid lines of a horn player, and he connects so well with Ben Adkins, always interacting.

The "Ballad of The Sad Young Men" will bring tears to your eyes. Alex Nguyen's solo is achingly beautiful. He conjures up the essence of Miles Davis's message with space, depth, and sensitivity. Ryan Rosello’s guitar provides a gorgeously subtle and reflective underpinning for the horn section. Such depth of feeling for such young men is highly unusual.

With Ben Webster’s "Better Go," the band plays tribute to swing. Bowlus, Sikivie, trombonist Robert Edwards, and tenor Jeremy Fratti masterfully construct their solos to fit the style of the tune. Fratti does an excellent job of playing in the style of the older saxophone greats, which is considerable because basically he comes out of the John Coltrane school of thought.

Finally, 5 stars for the rhythm section, anchored by drummer Ben Adkins. The old saying goes that if you have a great band and a fair drummer, you have a fair band. On the other hand, if you have a great drummer and a fair band, you still have a great band. What you hear on this CD is a great drummer and a great band, that's as good as it gets. - Bunky Green


The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra (self-titled debut, March 2009)



The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra is a group of nine young jazz performers, and was originally founded in early 2007 by four friends studying jazz at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. With a vision to pay homage to some of the classic big band repertoire through their own adaptations and arrangements, the group strives to bridge the gap between the big band and small group sounds. From its inception at Kokopelli's Jazz Club in Savannah, Georgia, the group was the resident ensemble of the club, performing a series of concerts that included collaboration with Nashville vocalist Annie Sellick. Here, the group’s ascension was spurred by devoted audiences packing this small Savannah venue to hear their youthful and energetic performances. Today, the JCO frequently gathers together to perform at various locations around the US and beyond, including frequent appearances in both NYC and the Southeast regions.

The JCO plays straight-ahead jazz, embracing a healthy balance of traditional and modern styles. The band has an undeniable sense of groove and swing, and each member provides valuable contributions as both soloists and composers. The overall group sound of the JCO is unique. The band doesn’t have enough members to be considered a traditional “big band,” and there are too many members to be considered a normal “small group” or combo. This format gives the JCO a more “full” sound, like that of a big band, but allows more room for spontaneity because of the smaller size. Although the instrumentation is slightly different, the band has recently been compared to one of the most well-known nonets in jazz: the Miles Davis 'Birth of the Cool' band. The following is a short review of a concert played in December 2009 for the Jacksonville Jazz Series:

“At a recent concert I was magically transported back to the halcyon days when America's native art form was king of the hill. The event, attended by attentive devotees, featured the fresh and exciting Jazz Conceptions Orchestra, a nonet the likes of which can only be compared to the legendary Miles Davis ‘Birth of the Cool’ band of six decades ago. Needless to say, linking any contemporary musical group with Davis' group of icons (Gil Evans, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, J.J. Johnson, Max Roach) is the highest possible compliment. This ensemble of ultra-talented young artists was able to pull off the impossible: duplicate the ‘Birth of the Cool’ sound without tuba and French horn. Can't be done but these gifted guys, all mentored by the skilled staff the University of North Florida's jazz studies program, did it so beautifully. And the cherry on top of the whipped cream was the soloing brilliance of one and all. For those interested in hearing the best of the past, present and future in the sound of surprise, The Jazz Conceptions Orchestra's new and exciting CD would be a perfect choice.”

- Bob Bednar
Host/producer of ‘This Is Jazz’ - WJCT (NPR affiliate)
Jacksonville, Florida

The band recently released their self-titled debut album, and had their CD release party earlier in the year at Iridium Jazz Club in NYC in the spring of 2009. The album has received excellent reviews, and contains two original songs and 6 original arrangements of standard jazz repertoire. The band plans on recording another album within the next year, and this time is considering collaboration with a vocalist, yet to be determined. While the members of the Jazz Conceptions Orchestra are still spread out between Florida and New York pursuing their individual music careers and education, the band continues to perform around the nation, always looking in new directions for their music. The following quotes contain short reviews about the band’s debut album:

“These cats can play! There's a lot more here than mere flash. I'm certain that you will discover what I discovered: substance.”
-Bunky Green

"Brilliant arrangements...Brilliant playing...I just wish there was more!"
-Jerry Bergonzi

"After more than thirty years as a jazz performer, recording artist, and educator, I have NEVER heard a group of young jazz musicians with whom I have been more impressed than the Jazz Conceptions Orchestra! Led by trumpeter Alex Nguyen, the JCO features an amazingly talented group of fantastic players. The arrangements feature wonderfully orchestrated versions of classic jazz material, as well as originals, played by a fine-tuned ensemble with first rate soloists. If their recent gig at New York's Iridium jazz club was any indication, the response to the JCO has been overwhelmingly supportive and I can see why they are getting rave reviews. I wish all in the JCO continued success, and look forward to amazing growth from this ensemble, which has all the indications of being one of the most significant new jazz groups on today's jazz scene."
- Danny Gottlieb
Original Drummer with the Pat Metheny Group
Performer, Recording Artist, Educator

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