Joe Policastro Trio throws in guitars, bass for more than average ‘POPS’ covers
Joe Policastro Trio - Topic

It all started at an historic, Chicago champagne bar with a cheeky, game-ready band of musicians who were totally into pop covers. Led by bassist Joe Policastro and flanked by several guitarists, including core player Dave Miller, that regular gig at Pops For Champagne turned into this June 27, 2016 album on JeruJazz Records.

Joe Policastro Trio’s POPS may sound like a run of guitar-centered, diluted gypsy jazz remotely hooked on a few catchy pop licks — on the first run-through. The guitars aren’t in your face. They’re almost subdued, inviting the listener to lean in and pick up on the subtleties of switching keys, speeding up the tempo, loading a melodic stanza with unexpected twists and turns.

Listen closer. There are some truly outstanding gems in these heartfelt covers that go above and beyond the usual worship.

It’s almost as if the guitarists go in from the inside or the back door of these hit songs, trying to figure out why they work out so well from a molecular standpoint. They play as if they understand the emotional DNA of the songwriter and the original artists first and foremost, while taking care to brush by the fame part of the equation, into what made these hits such audience favorites.

The covers that work the most are the trio’s treatment of the Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever’s” disco hit, “More Than A Woman,” Prince’s “Conditions Of The Heart”/“Diamonds And Pearls,” and Pink Floyd’s “Us And Them.”

They’re the same, and yet, they’re strangely different, almost off the melodic cuff of the original hits, creating an entirely new, hypnotically futuristic yet nostalgic vibe.

The jazz trio captures the eerie, freakish altered state of the original, 1973 Pink Floyd classic, but in guitar reverb phases. That’s guitarist Dave Miller’s handiwork and Policastro’s arrangement. “From Pink Floyd’s epic Dark Side Of The Moon, it was originally intended for their score to Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Zabriskie Point.’ While I’ve always loved the album version, it was when I heard a demo of the version meant for the film that I decided to try it,” Policastro described in the liner notes.

Pink Floyd’s dreamy versus nightmarish “Us And Them” rocker becomes this Nashville country-funk vamp, filtered through a Chet Baker marshall.

The trio’s up-tempo, samba/gypsy jazz treatment of the Bee Gees’ disco hit “More Than A Woman,” featuring Andy Brown on guitar, is a work of subtle genius. On this cover, the musicians jam a ton of guitar licks into each stanza, increasing the tempo for a markedly old world, polka, effect with a strange contemporary jazz twist that’s infinitely cool.

The other half of the late Prince’s two-song medley, “Diamonds And Pearls,” rules. The trio electronically enhances the hip blues riffs inherent in the song’s bones, plucking out internal moments from a known pop hit, adding depth and layers.

The trio of bassist Joe Policastro, guitarist Dave Miller, and drummer Mikel Avery plays at Pops For Champagne three nights a week, covering favorite pop tunes from the 1960s-‘90s. They're liable to turn on a dime from Prince and Neil Young, to Tom Waits, and the Pixies.

“When I got the job at Pops For Champagne, I saw it as a great opportunity to experiment with incorporating different musical styles, including rock, funk, soul, and Brazilian music within a jazz trio framework,” Policastro said in a press release from Mouthpiece Music. “I was lucky to find a steady gig where I could compose, arrange, and develop new ideas, and I was even luckier to find musical partners who shared my vision.”

The stuff these guys riff on is incredible. The bend of a classical bow and the furtive strumming in Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” take a huge amount of creative license, and works wonders.

Joe Policastro, Dave Miller, and Mikel Avery are artists who can stand on their own. They’ve played with Phil Woods, Diane Schuur, the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, Ted Sirota, and Billy Hart, among many others.