There’s a lot to celebrate on Ceremony, the sixth album by Chicago-based bassist, composer, and arranger Joe Policastro, rounded out by guitarist Dave Miller and drummer Mikel Avery. Together, the trio have created Ceremony, a work of creative heraldry that showcases a band at the top of its game where unity, originality, and cohesion are paramount. Honoring Policastro’s non-hierarchical approach to music, it’s a democratic display of three distinct musical voices coming together as one.
Ceremony is defined as a formal act or series of acts prescribed by ritual, protocol, or convention. It’s a fitting title for the Joe Policastro Trio’s new record in more ways than you might expect. In the traditional sense, Ceremonycelebrates union. Unified by the band’s highly personal, blended sound, the album combines delightfully unpredictable cover songs that are presented alongside their original compositions. Less predictably, Policastro also notes that “this band has its own language, its own customs.” A convention or ritual, if you will.
New Wave fans would be right to associate the album title and its first track with the New Order song of the same name from 1981. Policastro, Miller, and Avery tackle the tune, but don’t let the gimmick of a jazz band covering New Order get in the way of turning it into a thrilling composition. They blend straight ahead jazz grooves, pensive breakdowns, breakneck drum grooves, and even styles like krautrock into the performance. It builds off the original’s recognizable hook, but uses that structure as a launching point, not an anchor.
“Our take on ‘Ceremony’ began riffing on the song’s iconic bassline, but it evolved into something else very quickly,” Policastro explains. The arrangement interpolates composer Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie,” recontextualizing the song, its mood, its meaning. This is the “ceremony” at the heart of the band’s process.
Four engaging originals—three by Policastro (“Poioumena,” “Scene Missing,” and “Possible Music”) and one by guitarist Miller (“Mojave Lifeline”)—display a breadth of range, style, and compositional prowess. Strong melodies and taut structures disguise the complexity of these compositions. “Pioumena” shows their inside/outside improvisational approach on an up-tempo swing number with changing phrase lengths. The folkish melody of “Mojave Lifeline” masks its unsettled harmony. Throughout these originals, the band seamlessly switches grooves and texture while flawlessly improvising over the eccentric compositions.
Interspersed among those are the remaining “covers.” Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” sees the melody pass between players. It features an arco bass solo, a melodic drum solo, and breaks down into a collective free jazz romp before regaining its sea legs. They tackle Thelonious Monk’s notoriously difficult and rarely performed “Brilliant Corners.” Flexing its muscle on an up-tempo samba, the album closes with João Bosco’s “Bala Com Bala.”
The album is anchored by Policastro’s bass as it waxes and wanes in the texture, Miller’s wide-ranging guitar sounds, and Avery’s orchestral drumming. These dovetail into solo features and collective improvisations. “We make interesting choices in the music that we play, whether it’s the originals or adapting music way outside of jazz,” Policastro explains. It all serves a purpose, and each choice the group makes is intentional. “There’s a purity of expression that I think is unique to this group, this project. It’s so cool to hear things in a totally different way, to study them through new lenses.” This, too, is part of their ceremony, their ritual.
Ceremony also celebrates sound itself. It was recorded in triple-true stereo by legendary sound engineer Ken Christensen (Naim Label, Pro Musica) and mastered for vinyl by Bob Weston. “We have always been a live band. All of our albums have essentially been ‘live’ captures of the group, but Ceremony has added depth aurally and musically.”
This is the first truly “new” album by Policastro since 2019. In 2022 he released Sounds Unheard, a collection of unreleased tracks, outtakes, and a handful of new songs that documented the life of the trio from 2012-2022. The pandemic drastically changed the way and frequency that this band works. It ended their thrice-weekly steady gig at Pops for Champagne, the venue that gave birth to the group; their grassroots touring grinded to a halt; and drummer Avery now resides in Philadelphia. Sounds Unheard gave the band the opportunity to test the waters, tour again, and get back out on the road. Ceremony, by contrast, looks forward and pushes ahead.
“It’s too unique of a group with a history that can’t be manufactured,” Policastro explains. He notes that, “This album feels like a real celebration of everything we do well and what we represent, and it really moves the ball forward. I feel like I get so much more out of the group now having been forced to take a step back, to take some time away.” With Ceremony, Policastro and his trio have achieved a remarkable thing. They’ve honored their past, are indebted to ceremony. At the same time, though, the future of this band, its next iteration, lives throughout the album.