SUNY Fredonia jazz ensembles win astounding third DownBeat award in five years

Roger Coda
Fredonia Jazz Flextet

The Fredonia Jazz Flextet, in a dress rehearsal in Rosch Recital Hall.

New category/new year, but the same award-winning outcome. A jazz ensemble at the State University of New York at Fredonia has captured yet another award in DownBeat Magazine’s Student Music Award competition.

The Fredonia Jazz Flextet, under the direction of School of Music Assistant Professor Nick Weiser, received the magazine’s Outstanding Performance Award in the Undergraduate Division of the Blues/Pop/Rock Group Category.

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The 2023 award – the third Outstanding Performance Award won by a SUNY Fredonia ensemble in the last five years – comes on the heels of the flextet’s award-winning performance in the Large Jazz Ensemble Category a year ago. The Fredonia New Jazz Ensemble, in the same Undergraduate Division, won the School of Music’s first DownBeat award in 2019.

“Receiving a third DownBeat award in just five years is nothing short of amazing, especially for a jazz program that has only existed for six years!” reflected Dr. Weiser, who leads the two award-winning ensembles and is the School of Music’s jazz coordinator. “The DownBeat Student Music Awards are like the GRAMMY Awards for jazz education, and winning another one in this short a span is as good as it gets!”

Weiser said he had a vision for the jazz program when he arrived at Fredonia, “one that included putting it on the map – but this kind of achievement takes the hard work of students who share that same desire to build a program rooted in diversity and inclusivity, and to bring that kind of passion to the music they are creating,” Weiser said.

“This DownBeat award is an exciting recognition of our students and our dedicated faculty. Our School of Music joins DownBeat in congratulating the Flextet, Drs. Nick Weiser and John Bacon, and Professors Alec Dube, Kieran Hanlon, Kim Nazarian and Eliot Scozzaro on this tremendous accomplishment,” said School of Music Dean David Stringham.

“These awards are often dominated by music conservatories and well-established jazz programs at some of the largest universities in the country,” Weiser noted. “For a relatively young and growing program like ours to receive this award for the third time in five years is not the norm,” Weiser remarked. “That’s what makes this so special.”

Will Millecchia, a senior from Fairport, described winning the award as “a very nice validation” and something out of the ordinary. “I just love jazz for what it is and going into a career in teaching having that experience as a jazz musician really is a big help.”

“These awards are often dominated by music conservatories and well-established jazz programs at some of the largest universities in the country. For a relatively young and growing program like ours to receive this award for the third time in five years is not the norm. That’s what makes this so special.”  - Dr. Nick Weiser

“It’s an extra, a little boost of confidence, for me and the other students here, to have some validation that this is something definitely worth doing,” added Joey Porth, a junior from Lockport. “I’m just proud of the group, and proud of the distance that we’ve come up to at this point.” He was in the ensemble that won the last DownBeat Magazine award. “It’s a bit of a familiar feeling, but it’s really exciting nonetheless,” Mr. Porth said.

For Lucas West, a first-year student from Fairport, winning the award represents an honor for the program. “It’s very nice to be a freshman in a program and have won a promising award like this. I’m incredibly excited to see what this helps us to do and how this program’s going to grow and achieve.”

Weiser announced the award under the pretext of gathering jazz students for an end-of-semester pizza party in a Mason Hall large rehearsal room. A huge banner, featuring the flextet performing on the Rosch Recital Hall stage and christened with “AWARD-WINNING JAZZ AT FREDONIA,” was rolled out amid the celebration.

“My reaction was similar to the last one; I couldn’t stop smiling ear-to-ear,” said Will North, a senior from Hilton. “It’s a really great way to go; this was my last concert, my last everything on campus, so it was a really, really good way to go.”

Members of the flextet include: Matt Incontro (saxophone) senior, Music Education, Buffalo; Will Millecchia (saxophone) senior, Music Education/instrumental concentration, Fairport; T.J. Bartoldus (saxophone) senior, Music Composition/woodwind concentration, Rockville Centre; Vincent Heller (trumpet), senior, Music Performance/brass concentration, Music/jazz concentration and brass concentration, Bellmore; Jacob Hettinger (trumpet) senior, Music/ jazz concentration, minor in Psychology, Hamburg; Will North (trombone) Music Education/instrumental concentration, Hilton;

Also, Sam Wozniak (trombone) first-year, Music, Cornwall; Lucas West (piano) first-year, Music/jazz concentration, Fairport; Dylan Jaques (piano) senior, Music/piano concentration, History minor, Saratoga Springs; Giovanni Pettigrass (guitar) senior, Music Education/instrumental concentration, Music/jazz concentration, string concentration, Auburn; Caleb Duden (bass) senior, Music Education/instrumental concentration, Music/ jazz concentration, string concentration, Poughkeepsie; and Joey Porth (drums) junior, Music/jazz concentration, percussion concentration, Lockport.

Winning the top award in a different category is truly exciting, Weiser observed. “It points to the versatility of our musicians and the wide latitude of styles and genres we are exploring within the jazz area. More than that, though, this points to an inarguable pattern of excellence in these student ensembles,” Weiser explained.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our students, and am so thrilled their efforts are being recognized and rewarded.”

Weiser coined the “flextet” moniker a year ago so instrumentation and personnel in the ensemble could vary based on the repertoire, with between seven and 13 musicians on stage at a given time. “One of the great things about chamber jazz ensemble repertoire is that it often explores unusual instrument combinations,” Weiser explained, “so we’ve had variations including violin, French horn, tuba and just about every woodwind double you can imagine!”

It was Weiser’s vision, upon joining the School of Music six years ago, to create an ensemble versatile enough to explore different styles and genres on the fringes of the jazz tradition, and that often touches on contemporary rock, pop and funk styles.

The flextet’s performances of Alan Ferber’s “Quiet Confidence,” Tony Glausi’s “The Individual,” Sam Greenfield’s “Kidz Bop” and Neil Carson’s “Listen” – all taken from live performances in Rosch Recital Hall during the last calendar year – were entered into the DownBeat competition.

“For nearly 100 years, Fredonia's evolving jazz offerings have provided rich educational opportunities for arrangers, composers, educators, performers, and producers, whose impact can be seen and heard on recordings, in educational institutions, and in performing venues across and beyond the nation,” Dr. Stringham noted.

Complete award information was published in the June magazine issue which was available on May 4.

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