Justin Esposito was in middle school when he saw an upright bass for the first time. Already obsessed with Warped Tour and deeply immersed in punk rock, after a substitute teacher in his classical guitar class wheeled in a TV and played a PBS jazz educational video presented by Wynton Marsalis, he was hooked.
“There was a bass player in that program with an upright bass and I thought it was the coolest-sounding shit I’d ever heard in my life,” he remembered when we met up to talk at Cuties coffee shop a few months ago. “That was my first exposure to the upright bass, and realizing the bass I played in punk bands was a derivative of that.”
Growing up Quaker in Northern Virginia to a Black-Native American mother and an Italian father, other early influences on Esposito’s relationship to music included his mother’s love of public radio, a 2001 Grammys compilation with Destiny’s Child on it, and Fugazi’s 13 Songs, as recommended by his crush, one of the girls who worked at the local Hot Topic. Eventually, studying jazz band in high school gave way to majoring in music at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he continued to study upright bass while also immersed in Richmond’s hardcore scene.
Forming a band that would play house shows and meld the two disciplines of jazz and punk rock, Esposito remembers that exposing his peers to jazz in an accessible way was one of his driving motivations, even back then. “I wanted to play jazz for people in a setting where they wouldn’t normally be exposed to it,” he explained. “So it’s about anchoring the listener with something that they know, a song, or a chord progression, or a melody — and then developing it and showcasing what jazz can become.”
After college, Esposito moved to LA circa 2015 to work for the vintage streetwear store Round Two. Through the city’s quickly-growing streetwear scene he eventually connected with Brice Waller and Errol Chatham of the multidisciplinary creative platform Blondie Beach, and together they founded Blondie Beach Records as a natural extension to host and support Justin’s music. Once firmly settled in LA, he adopted a college nickname and began playing shows as the FREEJBOOSIE TRIO or quintet, officially debuting at The Peppermint Club and expanding to play free or very accessibly-priced shows at countless other venues around the city.
The FreeJBoosie Trio was slated to play a showcase for Cinnamon at the Ace Hotel this past March, but COVID-19 precautions unfortunately suspended that show indefinitely. Still, with the trio’s first two recorded tracks available on Spotify — covers of both A$AP Rocky’s “LSD” and Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” — the pandemic hasn’t necessarily slowed down support for the trio.
“The FREEJBOOSIE TRIO is about taking your outside influences and putting them through this jazz machine,” Esposito said. “We’re trying to make the music as accessible and widely-appealing as possible without pigeonholing ourselves in this idea of jazz. We make music that can function in a jazz club, at a music festival, on the street, opening for a rock band or even opening for a rapper.”
The current lineup for the FREEJBOOSIE TRIO features Justin on upright bass, Nathan Foley from Montgomery County, Maryland (DMV area) on guitar — playing with what Esposito calls a “jazz funk twang” due to several years spent living and playing in Nashville — and drummer Pedro Calloni, a Portuguese musician from Brazil who also studied audio engineering and is a “purveyor of the quality of sound.”
“Pedro is really about the richness, the science and the mathematics behind sound,” Esposito said. “And he’s also just like a visceral fucking drummer. He has this Samba-clave Brazilian beat over everything he plays. So Foley with the funk and twang, Pedro’s Brazilian clave, and me holding down bass lines kind of creates a very unique sonic palette.”
With two songs currently recorded and released and plenty more on the way — even if their live shows aren’t a possibility for a while — the FREEJBOOSIE movement is still continuing to grow and spread their funk-jazz-twang vibes. What better soundtrack for the revolution than this kind of hybrid sound, one that draws on so many different cultures and backgrounds? For Esposito, the last few years and weeks have been proof that change is coming and it can happen.
“Living during Trump’s presidency has been such a eye opener for the importance of equality, and the importance of your voice,” Esposito said. “This goes into politics, it goes into the relationship between men and women, and it goes into every community. For the first time, the curtain has been pulled back on what the world really is — and now we can decide on what we need to do better.” In a year that has already included a global pandemic, a righteous uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, and will soon dip into focus on the 2020 election, the psychedelic bliss of FREEJBOOSIE’s music is both soothing and grounding.
And though Esposito came up in the historically male-dominated worlds of streetwear, punk rock, and hip-hop, the influences of his early Quaker roots meant that universal acceptance and pacifism have always been central to his daily ethos. Justin might be the first straight guy to be featured on Cinnamon, but his personal principles of feminism and inclusion have been in place since day one.
“First of all, Quakerism is not Amish,” Esposito laughs. “It’s a Christian-based religion that’s very democratic. It’s presented as a community, or a society of friends, and instead of a sermon there’s a query shared at the beginning of the service, and if you feel moved to speak on the idea then you can break the silence and share. Growing up into this consciousness, we were taught ideas like gender equality, being completely accepting of others, and even pacifism very early on.”
Those ideas continue to inform his lifestyle both as a musician and simply as a person, and his thoughts on feminine energy are expansive enough to make an argument for how it can apply to men, too. “Men definitely lie to themselves if they think that feminine energy doesn’t surround every single aspect of their life,” he said. “From square one, men are nurtured, fed and raised by women. So that feminine energy, just naturally, is in everybody.”
Listen to the FREEJBOOSIE TRIO here.