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.”
Sitting on the porch with my pappy, he’d take pulls off his jug and pontificate: “Son, just remember one thing.” I’d look up and reply,“What’s that, dad my man?”
“You know! Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” he’d say. How true my old dad’s words were. As we all know, any critter growing from embryo to full-grown adult mirrors the evolution of the species as a whole, over eons past. And so it is with this collection by Joe Restivo. Making music that harks back to the ancestors, Joe is coming from a place that’s strictly Dadsville.
Any given song on this album carries the evolution of jazz and blues guitar in a nutshell. If you find yourself going back often to classic LPs of the 50s and 60s, perhaps engineered by Rudy Van Gelder, you’ll find plenty to love here. That’s not to say Joe Restivo and company are on a nostalgia trip. Nothing could be further from nostalgia than this band’s brand of classicism. If Joe shows the tasteful restraint to stick with the pure tones of his amp, both clean and dirty, it’s because he’s working within time honored forms, even as he stretches out within them. And spareness, with just tenor sax, bass, drums, and guitar, is the great virtue of this record. As Orson Welles once said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”
Art thrives on the restraint here, while still going hog wild. And of course, by Art I mean Art Edmaiston, whose gutsy tenor blows free, wild and tender over these selections. A longtime colleague of Beale Streeters, rockers, and jazzers alike, he can navigate the most beguiling melodies, then turn on the gutbucket soul as needed. He’s a perfect complement to Joe’s free ranging dynamics. With the tone Restivo’s perfected over decades, in Memphis and New York, he can make each note ring like a bell or strike like a viper. Taking rhythm duties, his choice chord voicings color, harmonize and punctuate these tunes unassumingly, until he steps up like a boss with solos both inventive and earthy.
Meanwhile, the underbelly of the beast is carried off smartly by the telepathic team of bassist Tim Goodwin and drummer Tom Lonardo. The pair were the go-to rhythm section for the late Mose Allison whenever he journeyed south, and here deliver solid grooves even in more frenetic moments — the synchronicity of their pounding sometimes moving the others to shout while cutting these tracks live.
Such range means the combo can deliver the forgotten forms of bygone eras with aplomb, true to their form. “Tiny’s Tempo” salutes the classic cut by Charlie Parker and Tiny Grimes, which only gains more soul in a down-tempo alteration, especially when Joe hangs on a bluesy sixth in the solo as for dear life. Similarly, while you’d expect a nod to Jim Hall and Bill Evans with “I Hear a Rhapsody,” the band here gives it a moody Afro-Cuban momentum that evokes the pre-funk grooves of early 60s Kenny Burrell on Blue Note.
Another cover, “633 Knock!” shows Joe’s obvious love of Bill Jennings. While the band once again slows it down by a Memphis mohair, the give and take between Restivo’s sweet notes and tones that break up the amp perfectly echo the original revelations of Jennings’ music. Every cover comes from an original vision. “House of the Rising Sun” is given a treatment akin to Coltrane playing “Greensleeves,” in all its triple meter glory, gradually becoming a little unhinged; and the Stylistics’ 1971 chestnut, “People Make the World Go ‘Round,” allows the band to allude to more progressive times, even as they keep its funk of a piece with earlier touchstones by virtue of a hefty swing. The whole affair begins with Monk, as “Bolivar Blues” arrives like a shot across the bow, perfectly poised between the edgy and the blue.
But it’s the original Restivo compositions that really show the range of this band. If “Where’s Joe” introduces our hero in a kind of hard bop mash up of “The Preacher” played by the Ray Charles band, it soon cuts to the almost reverent quiet of “Starlight Motel,” an almost cinematic blending of the sacred and the profane. “Thelma” is a romantic paean in the vein of “Ruby, My Dear,” but graced with a sparkling flow of guitar chords rather than Monkish piano. Then things pep up again: the pensive opening to “A Few Questions” soon snaps into hard swinging action with its intricate boppish head.
Together, the tracks reprise a history of jazz guitar, pre-fusion, with their clean lines and sparse arrangements filling your ears with subtle whispers and dynamic dirt. Clearly, these cats are from Memphis, each with one foot in the mud and the other on a railroad bridge, straddling past and present as they peer into the future.
My old dad would be proud, taking another pull and nodding. The microverse of a single song can embody a whole genre’s evolution. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, baby!
– A. Greene