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Jazz That Changes Texture Without Resorting to Improvisation : Composition: Joey Sellers' quartet plays standards in a way that gives them new fervor, with a nod to chamber music.


LOS ANGELES — Joey Sellers abhors the routine, relishes the unconventional. That's why when he leads his jazz quartet, he rarely follows the usual pattern that's called "head-solos-head," where the musicians play a song's melody ("head"), then offer improvised solos, then close with the melody once again.

"I see our quartet as being in a chamber-esque sort of mode," Sellers said . "We break things down within a set, within a song, changing colors, textures."

Sellers, 32, a trombonist and composer who also leads an 11-piece ensemble, performs tonight with saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Trey Henry and drummer Billy Mintz at System M in Long Beach. He defines the band both by what it is and by what it is not.

"We're not a hard-bop band," he says, referring to the bluesy, hard-driving kinds of bands led by the late drummer Art Blakey. "Overall, we take a much more delicate approach, though subtle and delicate doesn't mean it's not intense. We'll open up and fly, really stretch. Still, the kind of music we're playing is much more delicate."

Characteristic of the band's atypical musical stance, Sellers says, is its approach to the old standard "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."

"The trombone might start with a rhythmic vamp, then the tenor sax plays the melody alone," without the bass and drums, he says in an afternoon conversation at a reporter's home in Los Angeles. "Then the bass comes in, but playing another melody line, so now there are three lines happening simultaneously, with the trombone and bass not in their traditional roles."


The quartet also plays Sellers' originals, which, he says, chart the delicate course "between freedom and structure."

"I try to have places within a chart for free playing, but I don't want to sit through an evening of free playing," he says. "But once a piece has a focused direction, that's the structure."

Pieces by the trailblazing, avant-garde alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, whom the trombonist called one of his favorite composers, inevitably show up in a Sellers small band performance.

"We play 'Una Muy Bonita,' 'Blues Connotation,' 'Congeniality.' From a compositional standpoint, these tunes of Ornette's are little perfect gems," he said. "The direction we take might be considered more a stretch than Ornette's, though it's hard to think of that. The goal of an Ornette piece is to keep the improvising section related to the compositional gem."

Coleman is also noted for such classics as "King Porter Stomp" and "Wolverine Blues." "I think of Ornette as being like Jelly Roll Morton," Sellers said. "Jelly Roll wrote perfect pieces that were orchestrally sound, and that were over in 3 1/2 minutes."

Sellers is a native of Phoenix. He took up the trombone in grammar school and began his arranging career in the fifth grade, when he reworked a version of a Dixieland tune for the school small band. "We performed it on a concert and it sounded great," he remembers.

The composer, who lives in Long Beach, now has completed more than 100 originals. Many of these have been for his 11-piece band, the Joey Sellers Jazz Aggregation, which has recorded two albums for the Nine Winds label: 1990's "Something for Nothing" and "Pastels, Ashes," released early this year. And while he gets a reasonable number of commissions--he recently wrote six pieces that were recorded by the St. Louis Brass Quintet--Sellers has for 10 years made his living playing trombone in the Side Street Strutters, a Dixieland band that performs five days a week on the French Market stage in Disneyland's New Orleans Square.

Here, too, Sellers--the band's musical director--puts his distinctive mark on the music. "Some of the charts sound a little twisted," he says. "Yes, we play the regular tunes like 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' and 'Honeysuckle Rose,' but we also drop in something like 'Jelly Roll' by Charles Mingus."


That band is composed of colleagues Sellers met while studying music education at Arizona State University in the late 1980s. Asked if it was fun, he replied: "After 10 years, fun is not the right word. It's entertainment more than creativity, and I wish I could do more creative things."

Still, he's not for a moment considering a change of occupation. "From music I get that feeling I had when I was 13 and smelled a girl's cheap perfume and knew I wanted to ask for her phone number, but knew I was too nervous," he says. "But I asked her out anyway."

* Joey Sellers' Jazz Quartet, with Tony Malaby, plays tonight, 8 to 11, at System M, 213A Pine Ave., Long Beach. (310) 435-2525.

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