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10 Questions with Joe Policastro

Updated: Feb 3, 2019

Bassist Joe Policastro is definitely keeping busy these days. He and his trio not only perform three nights a week at Pop's for Champagne, a gig they have had for over 10 years, they are set to release their fourth recording entitled Nothing Here Belongs (release show at Winter's Jazz Club February 8th) and are hitting the road in support of the recording in the coming months.

We thought it was the perfect time to sit down and talk with Joe about the new recording, his upcoming performances and much more.

1. CJM: When you were growing up tell us about how you were first drawn to music?

Policastro: I'm not from a musical family, and until I went to high school there were no band or music programs in my schools.  My interest in music originally stemmed from what I was seeing and hearing in movies and TV.  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.

2. CJM: What drew you to the bass of all instruments?

Policastro: I’m not exactly sure why I was initially drawn to the bass. I liked its supportive nature and how unique it was when highlighted as a solo instrument. I love the range of the instrument, and I’ve always been drawn to the rhythm section. While a rhythm section beautifully complements other voices, it can take care of all of the business on its own. Playing time is also just plain fun.

3. CJM: What drew you to playing Jazz music? Was there a specific musician, recording, etc that you saw or heard?

Policastro: The first time I remember seeing jazz was on TV.  I saw a special on Dizzy Gillespie's afro-cuban band on CBS Sunday morning, but I had no idea what it was. Jazz scores like The Hustleralso made a big impact on me. In some strange way, everything I was checking out (rock, funk, etc.) kept leading me to jazz.  I was in awe of the concept of improvisation and the fluency that jazz musicians had in the language of music. Miles Davis’ ’58 Sessions, Mingus’ Ah Um, and Duke Ellington’s Piano Reflections were game-changers for me.

My high school barely had a music program, but there were some very serious musicians there. We formed a group and connected with students from the School For Creative and Performing Arts. Cincinnati had a strong environment of apprenticeship from the elder generation of musicians and even from musicians only few years older. I truly got to learn on the bandstand, and I became enamored of the jazz community.  People were obsessively talking about recordings, personnel, memorizing solos, I was drawn to that passion.  Jazz is a practitioner's art, and I love the tangibility of its tradition. 

photo by Harvey Tillis

4. CJM: After High School where did you attend college and what was your major?

Policastro: I studied classical double bass performance and jazz at both Miami University and the College Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati for my undergraduate. Many years later, I got a Masters degree from DePaul University here in Chicago. I majored in performance for both but did quite a bit of theory, arranging, and orchestration study.


CJM: How did you end up moving to Chicago?

After school, I thought about moving to New York, but I was particularly drawn to Chicago, a city I'd been regularly visiting.  I used to drive up to see shows at the Jazz Showcase on Grand and blow all my money at the Jazz Record Mart. I actually ended up moving to Berlin, Germany first. A girl I had dated in college moved there to deepen her language skills. I’d never been to Europe, and I went to visit her for a month. I ended up liking her (and the city) so much, I moved there. I had to come back to the States for a variety of reasons, she came with me, and we ended up here in Chicago. That girl has now been my wife for 15 years, and Chicago has been a perfect fit for us.  


CJM: How did moving to Germany come about and what was it like playing jazz there?

Policastro: I actually lived in Germany twice. After we moved here, my wife got an opportunity at the University of Bonn and we went back there for a year. Bonn is very different from Berlin, but both cities have a lot to offer. Berlin is truly an amazing and cosmopolitan city with so much going on. Bonn is very relaxed, but its proximity to Cologne allows for a rich musical culture because of the WDR bands and strong music schools. Their jazz scene has some interesting extremes. There’s a lot of free jazz and ECM-related music, but there’s also a lot of trad jazz. I picked up a lot of extra work with the trad bands simply because so few people knew that material songs. I got to do a lot of playing with members of the WDR Big Band and contemporary German musicians as well.


CJM: Let’s talk about your group the Joe Policastro Trio. You have been performing regularly for over a decade at Pops for Champagne in Chicago and now you have just released your fourth recording entitled "Nothing Here Belongs". Talk about how the group and the gig came about and also how important it has been to the development of the group sound.

Policastro: The band features Dave Miller on guitar and Mikel Avery on drums and was born out of a thrice-weekly steady gig at Pops For Champagne.  When Pops moved to its current downtown location, the jazz club was in the basement, and they added a guitar/bass duo upstairs led by guitarist Dan Effland. It eventually blossomed into a trio gig three nights a week, and I took it over as a leader about 5 years ago. What many what would have treated as a typical background gig quickly developed into an incubator for us to write, arrange, and truly develop a band sound.  Having the opportunity to play together so regularly gave us the luxury to experiment with every aspect of the music, from the techniques we employ to the material we choose.  

We've released three albums to date:  West Side Story Suite, POPS! (jazz arrangements of pop tunes from 60s-90s), and Screen Sounds(music from film/TV).  We're not a typical jazz trio, and we don't approach our roles traditionally. The music is extremely arranged, textural, and orchestrated while still leaving wide-open spaces for improvisation and experimentation.  Though the band is firmly rooted in jazz, elements of rock, soul, R&B, and even free improvisation are on display.  The thing I'm most proud of with this group is its sound.  Whatever we play sounds like us and only us. In many ways, the material is almost incidental as the personality of the trio comes through regardless.


CJM: You have a CD release coming up at Winter’s Jazz Club on February 8th. Let’s talk about the music that is featured on the recording. How did you decide on the repertoire, are they original compositions and what can people expect to hear on February 8th?

Policastro: The new album, Nothing Here Belongs, focuses predominantly on the band’s original music. There are a few “covers” of songs by Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, and Santo & Johnny that we decided to include. I’d initially planned for the album to be only originals, but that felt too much like another theme per se. Adapting unlikely source material is as central to the band as our original music is, so including a few of those felt right. Also, the 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.

As far as what to expect from the release show, we’ll obviously be highlighting material from the album, but we’ll playing music from our other releases. We’ll also be bringing out some of our newest songs and arrangements.


CJM: In addition to performing your steady gig at Pops for Champagne in the past few years you have managed to start touring as a group. How important do you feel performing outside of Chicago has been to the growth of the group and maybe even your own creativity?

Policastro: I had a very happy life as a sideman, and I had no good reason to start a band let alone manage and tour with one! However, when it became clear to me that this group truly had something unique to offer, I wanted to make sure it would stay together. Longevity and commitment can only be maintained through financial and artistic growth. Outside of simply getting a lucky break, the only way to achieve this is to build a profile, spread the music, and forge relationships with venues, promoters, and audiences. Creatively speaking, the frequency with which we perform forces us to be constantly evolving to avoid monotony. We also know each other so well that we can take risks and deeply trust one another.


CJM: After the Winter’s performance what other performances do you have coming up other than at Pops for Champagne?

Policastro: Directly following Winter’s we’re headed to Cafe Coda in Madison, WI, the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, MI and Notes in Columbus, OH. Up to the beginning of spring, we have runs throughout the midwest and the east coast. We’re sort of on hold for the summer until the festival schedules are announced, but we have a nice long trip around the lakes in US/Canada in October.

Watch Joe Policastro on "Talking Jazz with Mike Jeffers - EPISODE 123"

Visit for more info on tour dates and recordings

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