Tag Archives: Joe Policastro

THE BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE: JOE POLICASTRO TRIO, “SCREEN SOUNDS”

I’ve always been fascinated by the music filmmakers used, detached from the films themselves.  Get those actors, children, animals, props out of the way: remove the dialogue, let us hear the sounds.

The very imaginative and lyrical string bassist Joe Policastro has created a new CD, SCREEN SOUNDS, that is more than gratifying.  With Joe are guitarist Dave Miller and drummer Mikel Avery, and their music is as good as any film that holds viewers spellbound.

You can tell from the cover — serious and whimsical at the same time — that this is no trip back to the Fifties, LEROY HOLMES AND HIS ORCHESTRA (or the 101 Strings) PLAY MOVIE  THEMES, but neither is it MUSIC TO TORMENT YOUR HOUSEMATES WHO DISLIKE JAZZ.

This project is a happily inventive — and I would say audacious — creative enterprise.  It’s not nostalgia, although the themes from famous films and television shows are initially recognizable.  But the trio thoughtfully “re-imagines” the original music which is, in most cases, evocative.  Audacious?  For one thing, the original music was almost always scored for larger ensembles, so that reinventing it for this trio is both ingenious and loving (you’ll note that “irony,” or deconstruction is not their purpose).  “We put such a personal stamp on it [the original material] that these things belong to us” stands as a meaningful comment in the video above.

Here is the trio’s fascinating look-from-the-inside-out at the theme from YOJIMBO, as thoughtful and deep as a film on its own, mixing lyricism and strangeness (and that’s a compliment):

YOJIMBO’s dark brooding is, however, not the one musical theme of the CD. EVERYBODY’S TALKIN’ mixes melancholy and swing, sweetness and forward motion: the end result seriously danceable.  But it’s not pandering to an imagined audience in any way: even when the Trio is respectfully sounding out the melody, theirs is not cocktail music for the reception: you have to provide your own hors d’oeuvres.  (You’ll want to.)  The theme from THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS has its own dramatic arc, but it’s not like anything that came out of anyone’s television on a weekday afternoon.  COOL HAND LUKE is surprisingly light-hearted (it works its way into a shuffle) helping me imagine an alternative screenplay where the convicts form a band and get paroled to gig.

I’ll stop here (although I am writing this blog having listened to the CD several times with great pleasure) so that you can find out the lyrical pleasures of this imaginative travelogue for yourselves.  Popcorn optional.  You’re on your own.

Here you can preview and purchase the CD; here you can see and hear their version of the theme from THE KIDS IN THE HALL and find out where the Trio will be performing next.

May your happiness increase!

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“POPS!”: JOE POLICASTRO TRIO (DAVE MILLER, MIKEL AVERY, with guests ANDY BROWN, ANDY PRATT)

I am seriously out of touch with the pop culture of my generation.  Wake me at 4 AM, ask me for ten facts about Lester Young, and I can do it.  But Neil Young? Sorry.  There’s only so much space left on my internal hard drive, and if I choose to devote it to alternate takes of Sally Gooding with Teddy Wilson, go ahead and laugh.

When I received a copy of the fine Chicago bassist Joe Policastro’s new CD, below, I immediately thought that it would be related to Louis Armstrong.

JOE POLICASTRO 2016_pops cover

But once I started to listen, I was happy to have been wrong, since the music here is wonderful, an antidote to crabby narrowness.  Hear for yourself — the trio of Joe, the fine guitarist Dave Miller (whom I’ve admired — alongside Lena Bloch — in a variety of New York City surroundings), and the listening drummer Mikel Avery — working on the Sixties pop classic WIVES AND LOVERS here.  (I had that 45 single — by Jack Jones — in 1963 0r 4.)

Here’s Joe.  The music he creates is not as somber as this portrait:

JOE POLICASTRO

And Joe’s website.

I would like to see this CD in wide circulation, because the improvisations are so delightful.  Many of us have an unshakable fondness for certain songs — whether on their own terms, or because of sentimental associations — and we often want to hear jazz musicians improvise on just those songs.  I won’t enter into the needless argument whether Strayhorn is better than Porter or whether either of them is better than “those kids” Stevie Wonder and Prince.  Truly, once we brush away our associations, a strong melody is appealing, no matter who wrote it or when.  Think of Clark Terry and friends jamming on the FLINTSTONES theme.

So I dream of being in a car with a few Official Jazz Fans whose allegiances are clearly defined — let us say early Basie, 1960 Duke, Norvo-Farlow-Mingus, and so on, and playing this CD without identifying it.  And when the quibbling breaks out from the back, “Hey, Michael, that sounds good!  Who is it?  Let me have the CD sleeve so I can stop listening closely to the music and make judgments based on my reactions to people’s names, players and composers both!  I’ve got a little conceptual box right here!” I could politely say, “Please.  Just listen to the music and tell me what you think.  Life is only a Blindfold Test for people who want to be Blindfolded.”

I think they would come to the consensus that the music was superb, as I already have.  And then we could discuss players.  “That’s Joe Policastro!  What a fine bassist he is — I’ve seen and heard him with Andy Brown and Petra van Nuis.  He sings on his instrument.  And Dave Miller, full of surprise: I admired his work with Lena Bloch some time back.  That drummer Mikel is really swinging and paying attention.  And Andy twice — Brown and Pratt.  Where can I get this disc?”

Of course, some of the imaginary jazz fans in my car might recognize a few of the pop classics.  I know they would admire the gleeful, heartfelt transformations that Joe’s trio creates.

This disc would be an absolute hit with people who knew the pop originals but were ready to say how they didn’t like jazz, couldn’t listen to it, didn’t understand what “those people” were doing up there without any music stands.

For the record, the songs are WIVES AND LOVERS (Bachrach) / HARVEST MOON (Neil Young) / CREEPIN’ (Stevie Wonder) / WAVE OF MUTILATION (The Pixies) / MORE THAN A WOMAN (Bee Gees) / PRINCE MEDLEY: CONDITION OF THE HEART and DIAMONDS AND PEARLS / ME AND MRS. JONES (Billy Paul) / US AND THEM (Pink Floyd) / TAKE IT WITH ME (Tom Waits) / DRIVE (The Cars).

This session isn’t rock-pop played by jazz people in safe ways — for old folks who don’t want to be disturbed (i.e., wedding band music for those with delicate sensibilities).  There’s a good deal of inspired exploration, guitar sounds that made me think of TWIN PEAKS, energetic percussion.  No one would snooze through this disc: it’s not the twenty-first century version of THE HOLLYRIDGE STRINGS PLAY THE BEATLES.

POPS! is engaging inventive music.  And we’ll never have too much of that.

May your happiness increase!

PETRA VAN NUIS, ANDY BROWN, and JOE POLICASTRO MAKE MUSIC

Photograph by Bill Klewitz

Photograph by Bill Klewitz

It’s true.

Music first, words second.

More.

And, this year, part of Petra’s Blossom Dearie tribute (with bassist Joe Policastro), MAY I COME IN?:

These performances were created at the Whiskey Lounge in Evanston, Illinois, in 2014 and this year.

Petra has a wonderfully intimate style, paying serious atttention to the words as well as the melody floating alongside.  For those accustomed to high drama, to singers who show off years of voice lessons, she may at first sound quietly conversational.  But that’s a wonderful secret: listening to her, we are encouraged to lean forward, to focus on the secrets she has to share. To me, she embodies Whitman’s words in SONG OF MYSELF: “I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.”  In these performances, Petra is given loving comradeship (too rich to be “accompaniment”) by guitarist Andy Brown, by string bassist Joe POlicastro — quietly eloquent tellers of truths who don’t say a word.

Judy Roberts, who knows the mystical art of jazz singing, says of Petra: As a jazz singer, Petra’s unique and expressive phrasing gives her an instantly identifiable sound, and sets her happily apart from the crowd. Within one bar, you know it’s her, and you want to hear more! Much of Petra’s “own voice” comes from her intrinsically pure vision of how to sing lyrics – how to “speak” them, while choosing the perfect notes and length of phrase to convey meaning and musicality. Her improvisational excursions on the melody are born of a true jazz stylist, one with sophisticated taste and a genuine respect for the material. Petra lets us in on a candid and intimate view of her emotions, while always maintaining a sense of vivacious hopefulness. Sensuous, winsome and adorably hip, Petra’s delectable delivery of songs brings us the tantalizing flavors of Astrud Gilberto and Blossom Dearie in a young and appealing new voice.

Here’s Petra’s webpage, and her YouTube channel with more performance videos, including more from her tribute to Blossom.

May your happiness increase!

ANDY BROWN, SWING MASTER: “APPEL DIRECT”

Theoretically, I should not be able to write that the Chicago-based guitarist Andy Brown is in fact a Swing Master.  He is certainly too young and too healthy. He’s been on a skateboard.  He might even lack the maladjustments so common to Great Artists.  But these things have not limited his creative magic.

andy_brown2

There’s more delightful evidence at hand, a new Delmark CD, DIRECT CALL, which I would gladly dub SWING MASTERPIECE OF 2016.

andy brown direct call cover

For those who’d rather trust their ears than this blog, here are samples from the CD.  And here is the riotously rocking title track — Django’s APPEL DIRECT:

The three other masters here are Phil Gratteau, drums; Jeremy Kahn, piano; Joe Policastro, string bass.  Like Andy, they know what and where it is.

The session was recorded in Chicago last September — beautiful sound thanks to my non-relative Scott Steinman: THE JEEP IS JUMPIN’ / PRISONER OF LOVE / EL CAJON / FUNK IN DEEP FREEZE / APPEL DIRECT / RELAXING / ONE MORNING IN MAY / CATCH ME / ELA E CARIOCA / FREAK OF THE WEEK.

In a crime novel whose name I forget, someone said, less politely, “Everybody can talk but not everyone has things to say.”  The art of swing improvisation is not something learned from the Real Book or from copying gestures to fool an audience. (Ending a performance of SHINY STOCKINGS with three Basie chords doesn’t make it Basie.)

Compelling, light-hearted, authentic swing and melodic improvisations are a matter of years of study — usually on the job.  The members of this quartet, although not Elders chronologically, are wise players whose art comes from playing, listening, thinking, feeling.

Some like their jazz to be startling, even abrupt.  It has to be “innovative” and “adventurous.”  I wouldn’t deny them such pleasures, but music that shouts BOO! in my ear is not for me.  I warm to jazz that delicately balances the familiar and the surprising, with comfort the result, as if I were a passenger with a driver I wholly trusted.  This comfort is felt immediately in the opening choruses of APPEL DIRECT.  “These players know how to sustain feeling and build on it; they won’t let me down or disappoint me.”

Although the CD is in no way a repertory project, I could settle into the joy of experiencing and anticipating right from the start: the same way I feel when (let us say) I heard Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones play an eight-bar introduction.  Basie and Charlie Christian.  Jimmie Rowles, Jim Hall, Leroy Vinnegar, Frank Butler. You can supply your own names.  Mastery and ease.

I urge you to check out the CD, and, even better, share the music with others . . . or do that most radical thing, hear this quartet in a Chicago club or elsewhere. I believe that you will feel uplifted, rewarded — by the sweetness of PRISONER OF LOVE, the rare energy of CATCH ME and the other swinging tunes.  It’s a beautifully integrated quartet, with each player generously giving of himself to the band.  And now I will play APPEL DIRECT again.

May your happiness increase!

ONE, TWO, THREE: JOE POLICASTRO, MAX JOHNSON, DAY ONE TRIO

The triangular shape works beautifully in nature, in mathematics, and in creative improvisation: three examples of jazz trio playing for your consideration — offered as they sit near my computer, without any ranking, implied or expressed.

I have a long familiarity with the music from the Bernstein-Sondheim WEST SIDE STORY. I grew up in an era where adults with phonographs (“record players”) had original cast albums — MY FAIR LADY, CAROUSEL, OKLAHOMA — and the songs were part of our common vocabulary.  But my sister (to whom I am thankful for so much) was a WEST SIDE STORY devotee, attending many performances and making friends with cast members (I recall seeing part of a performance from the back of the house when I was small enough to be lifted up without causing anyone injury) . . . so I knew the music as part of my household soundtrack.

When there were original cast recordings, there were also “jazz versions” of familiar scores, and I think many improvisations on the lingering melodies of WEST SIDE STORY have been recorded in the last half-century and more. This might have daunted any set of twenty-first century improvisers, but string bassist Joe Policastro and his Chicago friends    know that this music has much to offer in itself and as fertile material for jazz improvisation.

west_side_story

Their 2013 recording of the WEST SIDE STORY SUITE balances gracefully between the familiar songs and the music’s possibilities for jazz improvisation. But there are depths here; as Policastro writes, “[the] songs have failed to enter into standard, everyday mainstream performance. There is definitely a reason for this. Behind the unforgettable lyrics and catchy melodies are some of the most unusual and tricky harmonies, phrase lengths, and song forms ever written for the theatre. I think it’s a testament to how good the material is that one hardly notices the constantly shifting keys or the abundance of 3, 5, 7, or 9 bar phrase lengths. Good luck finding a friendly 32-bar AABA song form amongst this bunch!”  Policasttro’s arrangements of the material can veer between the rhapsodic and respectful to the angular and open-ended.  The trio of Joe, string bass; Dan Effland, guitar; Adam Sorensen, drums, honor the original textures and intentions while offering many surprising shifts of perspective within each performance; they show just how much pleasing variety they can find in the material and in their varied approaches to it (from a charged urban conception to the arco statement of the melody on MARIA).  The songs are PROLOGUE / SOMETHING’S COMING / MARIA / JET SONG / AMERICA / ONE HAND, ONE HEART / COOL / TONIGHT / GEE, OFFICER KRUPKE / I FEEL PRETTY / SOMEWHERE.  The disc is available here, and you can hear a sample here:

Another string bassist (and composer) Max Johnson has issued a disc of his Invisible Trio — himself, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and Zev Ravitz, drums — playing his compositions THE PRETZEL / BIZZA / HELD FOR QUESTIONING / DON WRINKLES / THE INVISIBLE TRIO / MOVING VEHICLE / A PAIR OF GLASSES / THE GOLEM.

MAX JOHNSON Cover

You can hear samples of the music or download the whole CD here.  I confess that here I have no past familiarity with the material to guide me, nor liner notes to borrow from . . . so I will simply say that the CD feels like a conversation between three energized speakers, the collective mood shifting as one or the other moves to the fore and the subjects for discussion change and slide, the mood moving from querulous confrontation to tranquility to sorrow.  I don’t know Max’s compositional methods, so I will let the music speak for itself, to recall Charlie Parker.

Balancing freedom and lyricism, the DAY ONE TRIO — Dos Allen, tenor saxophone; Adam Everett, drums; Yoshiki Yamada, string bass, with a guest appearance on one track by tenorist Ben Flood,  experiments in a rewarding way.  The music on this CD is an intriguing mixture of on-the-spot improvisation and variations on those improvisations, considered as compositions.  As the notes state, “We recorded our improvisations and later listened to what we had played. There were an enormous number of really beautiful moments, as well as entire songs that felt great start to finish. We chose our favorites of those improvisations, mostly taken from our first night playing together, and wrote out the basic framework for each. We have re-recorded some of these favorites in the studio for you to enjoy. The interludes throughout the CD are the actual recordings of us playing together for the first time, and are a reminder of how this music came to be.”

DAY ONE TRIO

Thus, the CD feels like touring the museum, looking at the paintings, with a facsimile of the artist’s sketchbook in hand — as tje trio moves from quiet explorations over ticking drums and bass lines to full-fledged yet open-ended melodic collaborations.  The effect is airy but intense, most rewarding when the trio becomes a quartet, with Allen and Flood quietly trotting alongside one another, lead and commentary on FRIENDS.  The offerings are NO TURN SIGNAL / INTERLUDE 1 / ONWARD WITH A LIGHT HEART / INTERLUDE 2 / FLOATING IN TIME / THE IMPORTANCE OF BREATHING / INTERLUDE 3 / GET SOME / INTERLUDE 4 / AFTER DARK / FRIENDS / GOODNIGHT.  You may listen and download the music here.

Each of these trio adventures offers its own pleasure.  I invite you to sample them.

May your happiness increase!

CELEBRATING THE TWO GUITAR QUARTET: HOWARD ALDEN and ANDY BROWN CELEBRATE IN CHICAGO (November 1-2, The Green Mill)

I wish I could be there, because this quartet (Andy Brown, Howard Alden, guitars, Joe Policastro, string bass; Bob Rummage, drums) makes splendid music.

TWO GUITARS

If you can’t make it to these gigs (and even if you can) you will want a copy of their splendid new CD, HEAVY ARTILLERY, on Delmark Records. Here is what I wrote about it.

May your happiness increase!

IMPASSIONED CLASSICISM: ANDY BROWN, HOWARD ALDEN, BOB RUMMAGE, JOE POLICASTRO

I’d like to think I am responsible for this CD (just out on Delmark 5008 and through the usual download sources) . True, I didn’t play any instruments, nor did I hire the studio or produce the disc itself.  But when JAZZ LIVES speaks, someone listens.  (I promise to use my superpowers only for good.)

In January 2012, I wrote this post about a video of Andy, Howard, Joe, and Bob in a beautiful extended performance, and ended with a wish that some CD producer might record this group.  Delmark Records heard my plea, or perhaps they already knew it was a good idea.  Et voila!  Then Andy asked if I would be interested in writing the liner notes, which pleased me no end.  Here’s the verbal result: the music is within your grasp.

ANDY BROWN spelled OK

Howard Alden and Andy Brown are remarkable improvising artists – who became two of the finest jazz guitarists today. But their particular artistic intelligence – an impassioned classicism – would have made them stand out no matter how they expressed themselves, in skateboarding or water colors. In their hands, the emotions contained in the notes – joy, sorrow, musing, ebullience – come to us enriched and intensified. But they understand that music is more than simply a riotous series of notes flung at the listener. Each phrase, each chorus has its own lovely compositional shape, a breathing existence, and each performance is a satisfying three-dimensional dance.

Although Howard and Andy are separated by nearly two decades, this session isn’t a showy contest between Alpha Dog and Ambitious Puppy. Rather, it is a friendly conversation scored for four – a living swing community at play.

Howard says, “Andy has a rock-solid yet relaxed sense of time and harmony, which makes it a joy to play with him. When he was living in New York a few years ago, I would always recommend him wholeheartedly, as he’s such a supportive, sympathetic accompanist. All that musicality and intelligence comes out equally in his solo playing, which makes it a delight to have him as a front line partner. He loves and respects the jazz guitar tradition, and likes to discover/re-investigate interesting things from that tradition while always keeping it fresh and in the moment. It’s been a great journey playing with him regularly for the last few years, and I look forward to much more for a long time to come!”

Andy seconds this, “I’ve dug Howard’s playing since I first heard him live at the Blue Wisp in Cincinnati. Local guitar legend Cal Collins was at the bar listening, at one point leaning over to me and grinning slyly, as if to say “Howard’s somethin’ else, ain’t he?” His intricate harmonies and his uncanny creativity make him very inspiring to play with and listen to. He shows us what is possible on the instrument. For at least fifteen years, he has been a mentor, very encouraging — generous with his time and knowledge.”

This session grew out of mutual admiration and respect. Andy says, “When I moved to Chicago I really missed playing with and hearing Howard. I made an effort to bring him to town, so everyone could hear him, and so I could play with him! Dave Jemillo, the owner of the Green Mill, set up a weekend for us in 2010, and the group on this recording was formed. I knew Joe Policastro and Bob Rummage would be ideal. I’ve played with both of them so much, and Howard felt the same way. We’ve been lucky to bring the group back to the Mill several times, and on Howard’s last trip to Chicago we booked a short tour as well as a day in the studio, the results of which can be heard here.

We picked some standards (Louisiana, If Dreams Come True, I Had The Craziest Dream), as well as some Brazilian tunes we both enjoy (Vocé E Eu, Brigas Nunca Mais). It’s always fun for two guitarists to play unison and counterpoint lines together, and we worked up Thad Jones’ Three And One, as well as a 1928 Louis Armstrong tune Howard used to play with Ruby Braff, No One Else But You. We also paid tribute to some of our favorite guitarists with Django Reinhardt’s Heavy Artillery, and two tunes recorded by Tal Farlow, the Clark Terry blues Chuckles and a tune Tal co-wrote with Red Norvo with the caffeine-inspired title I Brung You Finjans For Your Zarf. Bob and Joe lay out on I Had The Craziest Dream and If Dreams Come True.

I always wanted to make a record like this. Playing jazz in a relaxed studio setting with three of my favorite musicians, in the middle of a week-long tour…and with Howard Alden no less? Sweet!”

The results are both translucent – swing that is easy to listen to – and complex – ask a professional guitarist to anatomize what Andy and Howard are doing in any four beats, and stand back. But ultimately music like this doesn’t need annotation. Howard takes the first solo on Louisiana and Chuckles. After that, you’re on your own – to analyze and enjoy this joyous beauty through many hearings to come. And don’t forget the selfless, energized yet subtle playing of Bob and Joe – who add so much without insisting on taking over.

My only worry is that the title HEAVY ARTILLERY might warn of an acoustic assault. But this disc is much more like Cupid’s quiver – a series of loving arrows aimed at our hearts.

I mean it, and so do they.  Howard, Andy, Joe, and Bob make deep yet light-hearted music.  Hear more on this CD.

May your happiness increase!