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?
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.
Peace and love,
Alex Nguyen- trumpet/flugelhorn
Brandon Lee- trumpet/flugelhorn
Robert Edwards- trombone
Alex LoRe- alto saxophone/flute
Jeremy Fratti- tenor saxophone/flute
Matt Zettlemoyer- baritone saxophone/tenor saxophone/flute
Joshua Bowlus- piano
Paul Sikivie- bass
Ben Adkins- drums
Ryan Rosello- guitar [track 7]
Producer: Alex Nguyen
Assistant Producer: Brandon Lee
Recorded October 20, 2008 at Charlestown Road Studio in Clinton, New Jersey. Mixed and Mastered at Skyline Productions in Warren, New Jersey. All recording, mixing and mastering by Paul Wickliffe of Skyline Productions.
Art direction and design: Ben Stapp
Photography by Ingrid Hertfelder