Joe Policastro CD

Loving those mid-range tones from guitar and high-hat highs in the track “No Idea” from the Joe Policastro Trio; but there’s also something refreshing in bassist Policastro’s prominent, melodic noodlings that gives the upright a much-deserved seat at the table. This and other moody, swingin’ songs figure nicely in the Trio’s new CD titled “Nothing Here Belongs.” The sexy dark side of longing comes through clear as glass with the trio’s cover of “I’m on Fire” (Springsteen). And here comes Joe opening the funky “Bloodshot” with depth and purpose, a song that’s retro and spy-like. The trio’s other offerings are very individual pearls, and while “Nothing Here Belongs” reflects each song’s uniqueness, the songs are tied together with heart and compelling rhythms.  

Why the bass?

I played piano as a kid, but it wasn’t very serious. I got interested in the electric bass through rock music and got one when I was 12. Through a chance encounter in a music store, I met an older R&B bassist who turned me on to all kinds of funk, soul, jazz, fusion, etc. As I got more serious, I started seeking out other musicians and formal training. I got an upright bass when I was 14. I started hanging out at any venue that offered jazz and began formal classical bass lessons with a member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. From that point forward, I was hooked.

Were you always drawn to jazz even when starting out as a classical instrumentalist?

I’m not from a musical family, and until I went to high school there were no band or music programs in my schools. Initially, I was only studying classical music for better technique, but I feel in love with the music and orchestras along the way. I thought about pursuing an orchestral job, but my love and interest in jazz was stronger.

Who are some of your favorite iconic bass players and why?

There are so many! I admire bassists like Ray Brown, George Duvivier, and Percy Heath for their strength and clarity. I love the singular identity of Ron Carter. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from Israel Crosby’s work with Ahmad Jamal and all of the bassists associated with Bill Evans. Charlie Haden, Oscar Pettiford, and Red Mitchell are players that I admire for their incredible melodicism as both accompanists and soloists.

How would you describe your sound?

As a bassist, I strive for a very classic, woody tone, and I’m intensely focused on bringing out the melodic aspect of the instrument regardless of my role. I had a very traditional/straight-ahead upbringing in Cincinnati, and it definitely shaped my aural concept of the instrument.

This trio, however, has an incredibly broad musical palette and draws upon a wide array of styles. It’s a progressive jazz trio that has an “orchestral” concept with a style that I often refer to as an alternative jazz. I’m extremely proud of the fact that the band has a sound unto itself. Each member has a very strong, identifiable musical voice that beautifully blends into a singular texture.

What is the secret sauce to being a trio that can wordlessly read one another and flow together?

There’s no denying natural chemistry, but more than anything else, you can’t manufacture time together. The three of us have had the luxury of a long-running, thrice-weekly residency at a club in Chicago called Pops For Champagne.  Beyond that, we’ve spent years touring together. You simply can’t substitute the depth and connection developed in that kind of a relationship.

“Nothing Here Belongs”- is this a comment on society’s disconnect from reality or about your diversity of sounds on these tracks?

Original music is as central to the band as our adaptations of unlikely source material. Nothing Here Belongs, however, is the first album to feature our original music though it does also include a few “covers.”

The title (and album) very abstractly explores the idea of ownership and creation. Sometimes our versions of existing songs become so personalized that they feel like they belong to us. On the flip side, I’m not sure anyone even truly owns their own creations. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and ideas, melodies, inspirations, etc. come from everywhere. Songs and compositions seem more to be unearthed than created (if you’re lucky enough to find one), and the things we make exist far beyond our own lives. In my mind, any creation belongs as much those that experience them as they do the creator.

What inspired this CD?

After our last album, people kept asking me what the next “theme” was going to be. Something about that didn’t sit well with me. I don’t want anything that we do to seem kitsch especially given how organically each album has taken shape. I wanted this album to represent the breadth of the group and more closely resemble a live set.

Biggest challenge in production?

Money!

Which track on the CD is the most fun to perform?

“No Idea” is a personal favorite of mine. I love the way the different sections fit together, and I think it creates a great framework for the “long game” approach of the band.

Where do you go in your head when you play?

I tend to focus on the band sound and the shape of the music. I try to clear my head of distractions and just be open to what’s happening at the moment.

…and when you compose?

Composing, or even arranging music, is such a strange process that seems to never be the same each time. I’ve had songs where I felt like I was taking dictation and others that felt like a breach birth. Again, trying to clear your mind, to find flow, and get out of the way of the music is really key.

Difference in the jazz scene between Cincinnati to Chicago?

They’re both very Midwestern cities, but Chicago has the obvious perks of any big city. Cincinnati had a strong environment of apprenticeship from the elder generation of musicians and even from musicians only a few years older.

Your work in big bands compared with the JP Trio: what are the pluses of each? How are the demands different?

Managing a trio [David Miller/guitar, Mikel Avery/drums] is obviously easier than a big band. I love playing in big bands, but the voice of the bass is more intimate in that of a trio. From an arranging standpoint, they both have unique challenges.

 I’ve always admired composer/arrangers like Gerry Mulligan or Jimmy Giuffre who knew how to get more from less, and I try to employ those concepts regardless of the size of the ensemble I’m writing for. It’s easy to do too much with a big band, and it’s easy for a trio (especially a guitar trio) to seem thin.

What would you say is the single most important thing for students of jazz to understand?

I never tell students what they “should” do. I choose to think of life, like music, as a series of opportunities and choices. You must realize, however, that what you choose to do or not do will either increase or limit your options.

Time is precious. You can’t be everything to everyone, and no one can determine your path for you. Keep your ears open, be passionate, be yourself, be open-minded, and follow your heart.

Favorite festival?

Playing the Toronto Jazz Festival was a real highlight for us, and I like that they do the co-curated sets with the clubs. We got to play the closing evening of the festival alongside Gogo Penguin at The Rex, and it was incredible to be that up-close and personal with a festival crowd.

Venue you have always wanted to play?

Village Vanguard.

New projects?

This one is still in its infancy phase. My wife is a German translator, and she has been working with families from the Holocaust Museum to have their family letters translated and archived. I had an idea to adapt Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” for the trio with an added woodwind player and pair each movement with a different letter.

Other comments?

I’m very proud of our recordings, but this very much a live band. I’d love for people to check out our recordings. I also encourage people to catch a show.

For more information, visit www.thejptrio.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Joe Policastro.
© Debbie Burke 2019