When I spoke with Joe Restivo about his jazz trio’s upcoming performances Friday, February 9th at Germantown Performing Arts Center (GPAC), the Memphis guitarist and composer had just wrapped up a phone call about booking another gig. And the night before we spoke, Restivo’s trio finished a two-night residency at Spindini in downtown Memphis. Let that be proof positive that Restivo has, as the saying goes, a lot of irons in the fire.
“We’re going to be playing some tunes by Thelonious Monk. We’re doing some Benny Golson, two pieces by Billy Strayhorn, who was Duke Ellington’s arranger and co-writer,” Restivo says of the upcoming show’s set list. “I’m doing some arrangements of mine of some standards, you know American Songbook stuff. We’re doing a version of [the Stylistics song] ‘People Make the World Go Round’ that I arranged. A few things of mine. I think it’s going to be an interesting mix.”
“When I booked this,” Restivo says of his two shows at GPAC on Friday, “I was like ‘Is anybody going to come to this?’” Those Spindini sets aside, Restivo has recently spent more time soldiering in the soul trenches and playing with a quartet, but the busy guitarist was excited to try out some more straightforward jazz numbers during the two one-hour sets on Friday. The performances will mark a return, of sorts, for Restivo. While admitting to his eclectic influences, Restivo still has a fondness for “straight-ahead,” traditional jazz. But of course, any artistic change brings with it a degree of stress. “The next night Branford Marsalis is there,” Restivo says and laughs. “No pressure!”
Restivo is a Memphis-raised, New York-trained guitarist and composer who cut his teeth on live performance with a brief punk phase at the Antenna Club as a teenager, before quickly transitioning to jazz. He has played in trios, quartets, and larger ensembles, and he’s open about his diverse tastes, citing soul influences along with the jazz. Indeed, many know him best for his work with the Bo-Keys, backing soul greats like Don Bryant and Percy Wiggins.
Restivo’s quartet has been playing a weekly set on Sundays at Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square, but this week’s GPAC show will showcase a different group of musicians. He’s playing with a stripped-down ensemble of guitar, bass, and drums, and grooving in a more traditional style. “I haven’t been doing enough straight-ahead jazz,” Restivo says. “Not as much as I want to be, so to me, this gig has got me kick-started to do more of a straight-ahead thing as opposed to a lot of the other work I do in town,” he adds. “I’ve been doing a lot of soul music.” Restivo graduated from the Jazz and Contemporary Music Program at New School University in New York, but he readily confesses, “I have relatively eclectic tastes in music.
“I wanted to do something different. The City Champs is like an organ trio, and I’ve got a group called Detective Bureau, which is a sextet. It’s got horns and percussion,” Restivo says, ticking off a few of his many projects. “But I wanted to do something to get into the upright bass, drums, guitar trio. It’s just a certain kind of instrumentation that I’ve always loved. It’s really challenging, because you’re pretty much out there by yourself. You don’t have anything other than an upright bass harmonically to rely on. So there’s a lot of space, which is challenging but also really cool.”
As for the trio's lineup, Restivo perks up when he mentions his fellow musicians. “I’m using Tim Goodwin and Tom Lonardo, who are Memphis stalwart players. I grew up watching them. These are musicians I looked up to coming up, so it’s an honor to include them on this,” Restivo says. “This GPAC thing has been sort of a catalyst to get back into that game.” Restivo says he feels as though he has grown as a musician since he composed some of his pieces included in the set list, and he sounds eager to flex his musical muscles while revisiting those songs with the challenging-but-cool trio instrumentation. And it all seems only to have whetted his appetite for traditional jazz. “Now, I’m like ‘Well, maybe I should make a record.’”
A short lull falls on the conversation as Restivo pulls up GPAC’s website to double-check the price of the event. The first show sold out, Restivo notes happily. After a pause, he adds, “Oh cool, the second show is sold out. Sweet.”
Joe Restivo, Friday, January 9th at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at Germantown Performing Arts Center. $25.