Joe Policastro Trio Credit: courtesy of the artist

Jazz has been a frequent partner to film and TV: consider Duke Ellington’s peerless soundtrack for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, the improvisations that saxophonist Stan Getz brought to the Eddie Sauter score of Arthur Penn’s bizarre Mickey One, or the brilliant atmospheres Miles Davis contributed to the Louis Malle film Ascenseur Pour L’echafaud. And naturally, jazz artists have also transformed countless movie and television themes, whether or not they were originally imagined as jazz, into primo raw material for improvisation. Chicago bassist Joe Policastro has taken the practice to heart in his current working trio with guitarist Dave Miller and drummer Mikel Avery; the group’s terrific new album, Screen Sounds (JeruJazz), applies a diversity of approaches to all kinds of source material, consistently retaining the essence of the original works while boldly imprinting the trio’s personality.

In his liner notes, Policastro notes that all three members of his band are serious movie and TV buffs:

Between Mikel, Dave, and me, we’ve seen nearly every movie and TV show. Dave and I overlap the most, and Mikel fills in where no man has gone before, and that’s not to imply that he’s a Trekkie. Let me clarify: Short Circuit 2 . . . check. Anaconda . . . check. Citizen Kane . . . nope. French Connection . . . nope. Even if he’s heard of Carol Reed, Mikel probably thinks he’s a woman and definitely hasn’t seen The Third Man (Mikel, please watch this movie).

The selection of material bears out the sort of eclectic, nonhierarchical sensibility that this quote suggests. I doubt that Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s theme for the sketch-comedy show The Kids in the Hall has ever before or will ever again appear on an album alongside Nino Rota’s theme for The Godfather. Policastro’s trio deftly collides John Barry’s theme for the Dustin Hoffman movie Midnight Cowboy with “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the popular Fred Neil song that Harry Nilsson sang on the soundtrack to that movie. The group also brings a wrenching, psychedelic pathos to “Nadia’s Theme,” the lachrymose melody written for the 1971 film Bless the Beasts and the Children but later subverted for the soap opera The Young and the Restless and the Olympic gold-winning floor routine of gymnast Nadia Comaneci.

The trio is ostensibly a jazz combo, but Miller brings in rock ideas throughout and Avery masterfully switches among crisp swing, hard-rock walloping, and imaginative melodic playing—you can hear him do it below on the stunning album opener, Masaru Soto’s theme for the Akira Kurosawa classic Yojimbo. The band also tackles the moody Twin Peaks theme, brings an elegant snap to Lalo Schifrin’s Cool Hand Luke theme, and digs into the Bob James theme song from Taxi. It even takes liberties with its own conceit by including version of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah,” which wasn’t composed for film or TV but (as Policastro notes) has been used more than 200 times in different soundtracks.

YouTube video

Policastro’s trio performs at Winter’s Jazz Club on Friday, August 25, and at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Friday, September 1—specifically, at the Jazz & Heritage Pavilion in Millennium Park at 12:30 PM.

Today’s playlist:

Donald Byrd & Doug Watkins, The Transition Sessions (Blue Note)
Ingar Zach, Le Stanze (Sofa)
Martin Küchen/Johan Berthling/Steve Noble, Night in Europe (No Business)
Hilda Paredes, Señales (Mode)
Townes Van Zandt, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (Tomato)