Memphis guitarist Joe Restivo is grateful to have come up during a transitional period in Memphis music, the 1990s, when the blues, jazz, and rhythm & blues masters could still be found on Beale Street and elsewhere in Memphis. The originators of those genres coexisted with garage rock, hip hop, R&B, and soul music that they precursored. Restivo (also a member of the beloved soul band the Bo-Keys) began playing clubs at that point; he even joined a benefit concert for the legendary jazz guitarist. He would play regularly with organ master Charlie Wood and piano great Mose Vinson and would see Newborn play every week. “He had that bebop element but it was also kind of dangerous and had a rock and roll thing, too. It wasn’t purely serious. But he was also playing sophisticated music,” remembers Restivo, recalling that he also used to see old-school, jazz-based Beale Street players like saxophonists Fats Sonny and Fred Ford, organist Robert “Honeymoon” Gardner, and trumpet player Noki Taylor, play live frequently. “You don’t hear anyone make the guitar growl a little bit in jazz. These sounds from that era are brackish water. Is Tiny Grimes a rock and roll artist or is he a jazz artist or is he jump blues?,” he asks, rhetorically. Taking these influences and making them his own, Restivo’s masterful guitar work also recalls national greats such as Oscar Moore (Nat King Cole), Loman Pauling (The 5 Royales), Tal Farlow, and Hank Garland.
It’s a hybrid space where his own solo album debut ‘Where’s Joe?’ (July 12 / Blue Barrel Records) arrives. The album crystalizes his interest in Memphis jazz music made at the nexus of jump blues, rhythm & blues, and jazz. This is swinging, fun music, jazz for hipster cocktail parties, which Restivo has been refining with his weekly residency at Memphis’ Lafayette’s over more than four years. He speaks eloquently of the secret history of Memphis jazz, citing Willie Mitchell’s early band and his use of Tiny Grimes and Bill Jennings compositions.
Yet the album is no revival, mostly fueled by original compositions. Take, for example, the film noir-inspired “Last Starlight Motel” or the ballad “Thelma.” He recalls, “’Thelma’ I named after my grandmother because it reminded me of being in her kitchen, with her smoking cigarettes.” Even the covers are done in a new style. Restivo adds, “We played Jennings and Grimes but we found our own way with them.” The standard “House of the Rising Sun” shows up in 3:4 time. Then there’s the raunchy Memphis instrumental bonus track, which recalls music from Sun Studio.
After a short stint at the University of Memphis, Restivo moved to New York City to attend the New School, where he got a degree in the Jazz and Contemporary Music Program. In New York, he was mentored by a host of jazz greats: Cannonball Adderley pianist Junior Mance; Count Basie band trombonist Benny Powell; and guitarist Jack Wilkins. “We weren’t studying with these guys in a classroom,” says Restivo. “We were at these people’s houses, going to dinner with them, drinking with them, playing with them. It really was full-on mentorship.”
After September 11 and graduation, he felt the pull back home. He was struck by a sense of irony when he went to a symposium at Rutgers University in NJ on Memphis’ Booker Little. “There were professors from all over the world, talking about a black trumpet player and composer from Memphis at Rutgers. Man, nobody knows who he is in Memphis! He’s an originator.” He also reflects on the harsh conditions that caused many black Memphis musicians to leave, which deepens his desire to celebrate them in their hometown. Excitedly, he says, “This is a cultural legacy, an inheritance.”
Restivo also sat in the producer’s chair. Recording to analog tape at Music+Arts Studio without overdubs, he calls upon bandmates, bassist Tim Goodwin and drummer Tom Lonardo, a Memphis rhythm section that’s worked together and apart for over forty years, playing behind every major touring jazz artist. Lonardo is recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Memphis Musical Heritage Foundation and has worked with who’s who, such as Mose Allison, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Bo Diddley, The Charlie Wood Trio, Jim Dickinson, and Calvin Newborn. Art Edmaiston, a veteran of Gregg Allman and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s bands, adds his saxophone. “We established a band sound over four years. I could work and learn and develop a rapport with these guys that can bring decades of experience my way,” says Restivo.
With the Bo-Keys, Restivo has performed in venues and festivals all over the world including Lincoln Center, London’s O2 Stadium, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, as well as shared stages with luminaries in soul, jazz and blues including Syl Johnson, Newborn, Bobby Rush, and Carla Thomas. Restivo has also played with rising soul singer Robert Finley. He spins Memphis jazz as a DJ on his weekly radio show on WEVL. He reflects that the Bo-Keys are actually an extension of this music, saying, “[Drummer] Howard Grimes swings! Getting to play with the Hi Rhythm section, those guys swing.”
Restivo plays a late 1940s Epiphone Zephyr Deluxe. “I don’t have any proof but this guitar was supposedly played by a guy who played with Bob Wills,” says Restivo with a smile, though he later found some evidence online to support the claim. “I had to grow with the instrument. It’s not an easy guitar to play. You have to wrestle with it a little bit. That became the sound I wanted for this band and this record.” One can hear the physical aspect of Restivo’s playing, in this case through a vintage Gibson GA-20.
Whether uncontrollably tapping one’s feet to a groove or letting the ideas wash over them, the listener will also find themselves in an intersectional musical place—and better for it.