The slim, intense Selvaggio, 40, grew up in Cleveland, worked in New York for four years and moved back home so he and his wife Chelsea could raise a family. (Their son Julian is 10.) He's the youngest of three sons of Pete Selvaggio, an accordionist who played with Guy Lombardo, the Three Suns and Ernie Krivda, and was a mainstay of the Cleveland jazz scene until his death nearly six years ago. Selvaggio came to jazz by osmosis. Now, it's his life.
Selvaggio has played professionally for more than 20 years, tours the continent, hosts clinics and teaches at the Aurora School of Music and Muskingum College. Selvaggio likes to write music as much as play it.
Joining Selvaggio for his Nighttown CD-release show will be pianist Kenny Werner, a New York master who often plays with Cleveland's best-known saxophone star Joe Lovano, and Pittsburgh-based bassist Tony DePaolis and drummer James Johnson.
"There's an attitude people associate with where you live, and you have to fight that," says Selvaggio. "If you have your stuff together, you have to work at it. I'm very proud of getting the respect of the Kenny Werners, the Sean Joneses, the Joe Lovanos."
Sean Jones, the trumpet virtuoso who recently became artistic director of the Jazz Orchestra, joins Selvaggio on four of Modern Times' 10 tracks; Werner plays on the other six. It's a diverse album spanning "Whirlwind," the remarkable, ultra-modern Selvaggio-Werner tradeoff; "Fastfood Wisdom," a floating, transcendent tune with incendiary Jones and assertive, plaintive Selvaggio; and a 5/4 version of "You've Changed" that converts the classic ballad into something unexpectedly bouncy and a tad subversive.
"I've been playing with Sean for years and I know exactly how he plays, and when I write a melody I know what he'll do," says Selvaggio. "There's not a lot he can't do. With a band like this, I pretty much have the freedom to write anything I want. It sounds pretty amazing."
"Whirlwind," a witty, rough-and-tumble exchange, is refreshingly raw. "I was nervous from a recording standpoint," says Selvaggio. "The less producing you have to do — fixing and layering — the more of a live situation, the better. That's where the spontaneity comes from. We played it first take; there it is. It's a fun tune."
Modern Times isn't Selvaggio's only agenda item. He recently formed the 11-piece Hendectet Jazz Collective and, with bassist Matt Charboneau, launched the Cleveland Jazz Initiative. "One of the things I've been doing lately on top of the performance things is wanting to reach out to younger musicians in the area and try to help them, whether it be musically or in attitude, psychologically speaking, or on the business end," he says. "I consider myself not only a performing musician and educator, but I've been my own manager/booking agent also, and that's a full-time job."
And music is his passion, though he didn't settle on it as a career until he got to Kent State, where he earned a bachelor's degree in music performance (he has a master's in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music).
"The thing that was amazing about my dad was the chance to go out and hear him play and hear all the Cleveland musicians like Ernie Krivda and Bob Fraser and Kenny Davis, Jack Schantz early on," he says. "I was getting it into me even though I wasn't doing it yet."
Now, Bobby Selvaggio is doing it all the time — with authority, modernism, style and heart.