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Big and Juicy

Joey Sellers’ music makes your ears prick up. I know, ’cause I just listened to his El Payaso, released last year on Nine Winds, and it took me half an hour to snip off all the shiny little thorns.

Chasing large-ensemble demons with special zeal, Sellers has been one of the few in recent decades who’ve splashed anything original and good onto the big canvas. (Other knife-edged local gang leaders: James Newton, Vinny Golia, Andrew Durkin.) And his Jazz Aggregation glows with a full spectrum of colors. The woozy low-end slur and punch-drunk border-town counterpoint of El Payaso’stitle track, for instance. Or the hip-shaking Latin fiesta of “Corrugated Beak,” ruffed up with JohnO’Gallagher’s corncob-dry alto solo. Or the silver-screen balladry of “Rain as Grace.” Or the jaunty midnight slambam of “Val.” A writer whose arranging skills are intrinsic to his art, Sellers cuts himself plenty of elbow room with excursions that often stretch to the 15-minute range, his lines rolling, bumping, fuguing easily on top of each other, his harmonies startling yet spare in oblique tribute to one obvious model, Carla Bley. (A low-key swing selection featuring cross-eyed flutes and David Berkman’s raindrop piano is dubbed “Carly B.”)

Sellers has been on the case for quite a while. It was by accident around 1990 that I first ran into the surprisingly clean-cut and buttoned-down young dude as he switched between baton and trombone while leading a big group highlighted by Kim Richmond’s bent neon alto. The compositions were challenging yet listenable, the solos plentiful and fiery, as represented on the Aggregation’s 1990 and 1993 Nine Winds albums, Something for Nothing and Pastels, Ashes. My reactions veered between “Oh my god, here’s the inspirational populist avantist I’ve been praying for” and “How’d a complete unknown pull all this together?” The answer seems to be that top musicians instantly recognize his brilliance and want to work with him; the lineup of his quartet with saxist Tony Malaby, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Billy Mintz proves the point.

For several years, Sellers has nailed down the jazz chair at Saddleback College down in Mission Viejo, establishing a guerrilla base from which he can spread the word that wild improvisational sensuality didn’t end with Ellington or Mingus; his programs have tapped wellsprings from Jelly Roll to Ornette and sent the waters surging toward the future. His teaching work has kept him busy, though, so he’s had little chance to dent heads in our brawling metropolis. Please welcome him back.

Joey Sellers’ 12-piece Jazz Aggregation, featuring Bruce Fowler, Joel Hamilton, Kendall Kay and Jerry Pinter, plays its first L.A. gig in over a decade at Club Tropical, Thursday, August 31.


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