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How New Order, Erik Satie, shared rituals inspired the Joe Policastro Trio's new album

The Joe Policastro Trio stands together facing the camera.
Courtesy of the Artist
Clandestine PR

The genre-bending jazz trio's Ceremony is out Friday, Oct. 13.

How do you honor a creative bond? That’s the central question of the new album Ceremony by the Joe Policastro Trio, which is out in full this Friday. Drawing from a diverse sonic palette, the album is a celebration of the group itself, which began through a recurring gig at the Chicago venue Pops for Champagne and has grown into an innovative and idiosyncratic trio.

I caught up with Joe to learn more about Ceremony, the surprising connections between New Order and Erik Satie, and the secret languages and rituals that make up a band.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: Ceremony is out on Oct. 13. Tell me a little more about it.

Joe Policastro: Well, this kind of continues in the regular tradition of the band. Some of the albums that we've done have been very thematic — we did an album that was all movie and TV music, and we did a West Side Story suite that was one of the first things the group put out. And then the band has a very robust original music catalog, too. This was another one in that vein, where it balances the original music with adaptations of things well outside of jazz and some jazz stuff on there, like the Thelonious Monk tune.

We decided to call it Ceremony, because the first track on the album came together very nicely as this sort of celebration of the group — and everything that it encompasses.

The album is titled after the New Order song of the same name, which you have a jazz arrangement of. Let's spend a little time talking about this track.

It was a favorite of ours. And again, talking about the idea of celebrating the group — I have very broad musical tastes, and this is obviously a jazz group, but everybody has their individual sonic palettes, everyone draws from a lot of different inspirations. And I've always liked that song by New Order.

This group has always had an interesting relationship with different music and the way we adapt it. It isn't like we try to force jazz arrangements on things — we'll just kind of work on something, play it, see how it feels in the hands of the band. There has to be some sort of inspiration for why we're doing it. And I was just messing around one day, and I'd always had this thought that there was something about “Ceremony” that for whatever reason reminded me of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies.

I tried putting the two together, and it just yielded some interesting results. And then I took it to the guys, and we started sort of molding it into what it became.

It is one of the best representations of what this group does. And I liked the idea of unity and celebration, which we put the whole concept of the album together around.

It really yields some surprising connections.

I do really like the idea of recontextualization. You take something that you know, but then when you put it in such a different context, it takes on a life of its own. But there's still these very visceral, emotional things that people connect to.

Not to jump to a history thing about this group, but I mean, this band sort of happened by accident. I didn't set out to have a group that did this under my name. But, through a series of happy accidents, we had this three-night-a-week gig right in downtown Chicago at this place called Pops for Champagne. The jazz club was in the basement, and they have this champagne bar upstairs. They really just wanted background music upstairs, and it started as a simple little standards gig, just playing tunes. And then the opportunity got more serious, and we brought in more music.

The reason I bring this up is that room was such a good laboratory to see how things would play. If you could get a room full of people who had no intention of being there to listen to music to focus on the group, get them to turn their heads and all of a sudden start paying attention, it was always like, “Oh, wow, that one works. This one hits.” It was a really important incubator for us.

The trio is Dave Miller on guitar, Mikel Avery on the drums — and I understand that Pops for Champagne gig has actually ended?

Yep, died with the pandemic.

Has the group dynamic shifted at all in the wake of not having that gig as the unifying force?

Yeah, very much so. We basically went almost two years without playing, other than a smattering of gigs during the pandemic. Mikel doesn't live here in Chicago anymore, he actually lives in Philadelphia. So it's changed drastically.

But the amazing thing is, we had so many years together, playing so many gigs regularly and traveling a lot together and playing festivals and being on the road. We always did a very grassroots, almost like a rock band kind of touring, just three guys in a van playing and going back to places and sort of slowly building a little grassroots circuit. It was really interesting when we came out of the pandemic—we had this weekend at The Green Mill, which is kind of a legendary Chicago jazz club. And it was just explosive. It was like we hadn't missed a beat.

I think the trickiest thing right now is to figure out how new material enters the group. It doesn't have the same process of putting it through the meat grinder of this steady gig, and then seeing what comes of it. But it still manages to work out.

That goes back to the title Ceremony — the way ceremonies and rituals are these things that we partake in that stay the same while everything else is changing.

Absolutely. The cover’s a little abstract, these three rings that intertwine. I really wanted that kind of imagery and thought behind it.

Mikel always likes to joke that you could put three chimpanzees in a room together for as much time as we played together, and they would start to sound good together. The group has its own language, it has its own rituals. You're never going to see a piece of music up on the bandstand, no matter how complicated the arrangement is or anything.

This stuff was born of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears and a lot of hours together. And it's a very live band. It’s extremely organic. There are things that happen every time, and then there's a whole lot of stuff in there that's very loose, and very free.

What are some of those rituals that happen every time?

We have so much music that we've played together, so much arranged and recontextualized music and originals and things, that people have ways of deciding to change what's happening by interjecting a riff or a figure from something else as a little code. Like, “hey, let's open this section up and stay here, or what do you think about maybe transitioning into this?”

If something's going and it feels good, we’ll medley into other songs or territories and find the way back. Even changing tempo sometimes; it’s wild. You couldn't practice that. That's something that just has to work for these three individuals playing together. It's very loose, but very tight at the same time, which is one of the things I'm most proud of with this group.

The album is a mix of covers like "Ceremony” that draw from various genres, along with four original pieces by you and the trio. What went into that selection process?

That's a very organic process too. Every album we've ever recorded is recorded completely live. There's no overdubs and things like that: we go in for a day, and we will play all day long. We usually don't deal with very many takes of a particular song.

And we don’t like to do things like — I mean, obviously, in the studio, you have to have some isolation, but we've always tried to record an environment where we don't have to have headphones on, where we're all in the same room. The more bleed, the better. That way, you can't go back and start editing things and cutting them. For improvisational music, I've never been into that.

Even the loosest album still has some sort of thought behind it, so there's definitely a body of tunes that we're working from. But we never try to force anything on there.

What's next?

We've got a nice release weekend at the Green Mill here in Chicago, and then in 2024, right after the holidays, we're going to be back out. We're likely to be back down around Virginia at that time.

Ceremony by the Joe Policastro Trio is out on Friday, Oct. 13.