It was out of that situation that the album “POPS!” was born. The Jazz-laced pop tunes include works from Pink Floyd to Prince and so many in between. Policastro calls “POPS!” an “accidental tribute album” because it contains works of Prince and Billy Paul, both of whom were to lost to us after the recording of the album.
With bassist Policastro is Dave Miller on guitar and Mikel Avery on the drums. Guest stars include guitarists Andy Brown and Andy Pratt. Both Andys are also Chicago guys who play often with the trio. The album is the third for Policastro and the second for the trio.
Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Wives and Lovers” opens the album. Policastro chose to open the album with Bacharach because he is the guy who may best represent the bridge from the American Songbook Era to the pop era of the 1960s and 70s.
The bass (and woodblock) introduce the piece. Guitarist David Miller arranged the song and turns the pop tart into Jazz art. The quirky time signature turns the 1963 song on its ear and the cool guitar sections and brilliant bass lines lift this up into something completely different.
I was not prepared to hear one of my all-time favorite Neil Young pieces follow. “Harvest Moon” is played straight on to the original in the introduction and then Policastro uses the bass to recreate Neil’s vocal lines. Beautifully done. Policastro arranged the piece and Miller’s take on the Neil guitar licks are priceless. Avery’s drums keep the Jazz rhythms alive as the guitar and bass explore so many different aspects of the great composition. It is impossible to get enough of this track.
Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” is a fine choice from the master’s catalog. As Policastro says in the liner notes, “It’s hard to find a song of his not worth digging into.” From the album “Fulfillingness First Finale,” this Policastro arrangement is an extraordinary representation of what this trio can do with the works of the Pop legends. It was also nice to hear one of the lesser-known works used.
Miller’s approach is cool and vibrant and is offset by the warm, bowed bass of Policastro. Avery is an exciting drummer and his rhythmic patterns are always complementary and appropriate. This was a fun track, as any Stevie song is required to be.
The Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” is given the once-over by Special Guest Andy Pratt on guitar. Truthfully, it was a song I had forgotten since seeing “Pump Up the Volume.” The Policastro arrangement not only brought it back to mind, he framed it in the Jazz setting and brought it back to life. The chord changes that were so memorable are treated differently here and the bass solo is an affectionate look back at the original. I fell in love with the song, for the first time.
Policastro calls the Bee Gees “a guilty pleasure for some” and, as true as that probably is, he makes it come true in his treatment of “More Than a Woman” as arranged by Andy Brown. Damn.
The piece loses its disco distinctiveness and, instead, becomes a near-Samba. That becomes doubly true with Avery’s drumming, choosing cool Latin rhythms over the pop/rock backbeat. This was completely unexpected and completely enjoyable.
A Prince medley follows. Again, the trio sets aside the choice for one of the more popular radio pieces. Instead, they go deep with “Conditions of the Heart” and also “Diamonds and Pearls.” Prince was a brilliant composer (you can use “genius”, if you like, I won’t disagree) and his writing greatness is even more evident when you see how easily these pieces yield to the Jazz arrangements of Policastro.
The openness of the arrangements allow for expansive explorations from the trio and splendid improvisations.
“Condition of the Heart” is moving and played openly with warmth and expression from all three of the trio members. Miller’s guitar is a tight Jazz approach with beautiful bluesiness. Policastro’s bass is wonderfully soulful. I couldn’t love this more.
“Diamonds and Pearls” opens with the bluesy bass in vivid improvisation springing from the lovely melody. The tight-picking that accompanies the bass opening is a cool little feature. The Jazzy structure that follows is tight—with its Eastern textures and Gospel undercurrents—and expands into a free form that makes you hit the repeat button before the song is ever over.
“Me and Mrs. Jones” (Gamble, Huff and Gilbert) was made famous by Billy Paul. Policastro arranges the piece for Jazz and Andy Brown takes the guitar on the song. The romantic Soul of Billy Paul surrenders to the Jazz-Blues of the trio. Brown’s phrasing is stunning and the bass and drums support with the andante rhythms. Policastro’s bass solo works the melody from a different angle. The trio stays close to the original but also has moments of sweet departure that make the piece fresh for the Jazz audience.
With the Pop pieces that have gone before, Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” (Roger Waters and Richard Wright, composers) was a bit of a surprise. A nice surprise, mind you. Out of the catalog of Pink Floyd works, this is also a favorite.
Policastro’s bass opens the piece with the strummed guitar of Dave Miller coming closely behind with long sustains and Avery’s steady cha-cha rhythm beneath. The anguished feeling of division is not lost at all in this arrangement. In fact, the glaring differences between drums, and bass, and guitar enhance the emotion. Incredibly done.
Tom Waits’ “Take It with Me” is from his 1999 album “Mule Variations.” Waits is a guy that have to “get” and Policastro “gets” Waits. The bass is the vocal instrument for part of the song and recreates Waits’ own gravelly intonation. Miller adds his own scratchy strumming which opens up for Policastro’s bowing bass. An unexpected flavoring.
The Cars’ hit, “Drive” (Ric Ocasek, composer), asks the question “Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?” Policastro took that as an intentionally humorous choice for the closing piece of the album considering that the album is dedicated to a champagne bar. Andy Pratt returns with reverb and Policastro’s bass solo is cool as can be. Pratt’s touch-playing during the bass solo is a fine feature. Avery helps make the song coalesce into a Jazz number with his drumming.
“POPS!” is the Joe Policastro Trio’s way of reminding us that not all Jazz comes from Jazz originals. Taking great Pop songs—and some that may have been not truly great—Joe Policastro has arranged fine Jazz tunes and the trio, with special guests, have rendered them with the love and respect due them. There is emotional attachment to the originals and the trio makes them sing with a new voice and new meaning. I wish Prince and Billy Paul could have heard what the Joe Policastro Trio recreated for them.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl