Given that Astral Project has been together for two decades, it might seem strange to say that the New Orleans jazz band is just starting to arrive. But after many years, these five world-class veterans have finally begun to attract attention outside the Crescent City, where they’ve been a staple since saxophonist Tony Dagradi first assembled the band in 1978.
“When I came here from Boston, I spent my first few days going around town and hearing everyone playing at various locations,” Dagradi said during a recent interview. “I wasn’t necessarily intent on staying here, but once I’d gone around and heard so much music, it seemed like a comfortable fit. The other musicians were people that fit well with the conception that I initially had, and we’ve just kind of stayed together ever since.”
Nashville-based Compass Records recently issued Astral Project’s long-awaited second disc, Elevado, and the band will make its local debut Monday at Gibson’s Caffè Milano. The new album fully displays the group members’ versatility and exemplary musicianship. The compositions range from freewheeling, explosive dialogues like “O.F.O (One for Ornette),” to the passionate ballad “Too Soon to Tell,” to “Paladia,” a number that nicely mixes New Orleans R&B with hard-bop harmonies and unison lines.
The stylistic breadth on Elevado reflects the group’s diverse backgrounds: Dagradi was a member of Carla Bley’s exciting ’80s big band, and he got his induction into New Orleans musical circles playing with legendary pianist Professor Longhair. Guitarist Steve Masakowski has backed vocalists Mose Allison and Dianne Reeves, along with fiery saxophonist Rick Margitza, while pianist David Torkanowsky has been music director at Boston-based Rounder Records for several years. Bassist James Singleton is among New Orleans’ busiest session players, and he served double duty as producer on the new LP. Drummer Johnny Vidacovich worked with another Crescent City keyboard giant, James Booker, and has also played alongside Professor Longhair and guitarist John Scofield.
In most instances, bands with that much collective experience would have splintered long ago. Instead, Dagradi says, staying busy keeps the group together. “It’s actually been a blessing that we’ve had so many other gigs aside from the group. There have been periods when we might only have about a dozen jobs during a couple of months, and we’ve kept our interest in playing together.
“In the beginning, I handled most of the business details, then other band members picked up the slack. Now James [Singleton] handles a lot of the business. Plus, we’ve got a new manager and very good new agent, Ed Keane, who’s booking some good dates for us.”
Astral Project’s sound has evolved considerably since its early days, when Dagradi envisioned the group as a New Orleans variation on Miles Davis’ electric ensembles and Chick Corea’s second edition of Return to Forever. Originally, Singleton only played electric bass, and Torkanowsky spent more time on electric piano.
“After about a year and a half, we began to move more and more toward the acoustic mainstream,” Dagradi explains. “We found we could be most creative in that area. At the same time, we haven’t completely abandoned electric instruments. We feel we’re extending the mainstream in the material we do; we’re not based on any one period. With some of these young-lion types, everything sounds like it was recorded in 1959. We all know that repertoire, and we’ll do some classic Miles and Monk songs, but we won’t limit ourselves to that.”
Astral Project is a group in the grand jazz tradition: There’s no musical director, and everyone shares compositional duties. Dagradi doesn’t even consider himself the leader, preferring to speak in collective terms. He repeatedly emphasizes the various members’ shared responsibilities.
Although the band now occupies most of his attention, Dagradi has amassed a sizable reputation as a solo player. He recorded five LPs for Grammavision and Rounder in the ’70s and ’80s, although it wasn’t until later that he earned widespread recognition in the jazz world. Still, he fondly remembers his stints as a sideman with Bley’s orchestra and with Professor Longhair.
“ ’Fess was my tutor into the rhythms and ways of New Orleans when I first got here. He knew so much about the city’s history, and the way R&B, the blues, and jazz were connected. He never said much about what you were doing, unless you did something he felt didn’t work. Then he would explain to you in detail why what you were playing wasn’t right for that situation.
“The Carla Bley band had so many wonderful musicians: [bassist] Steve Swallow, [trumpeter] Mike Mantler, [trombonist] Ray Anderson. There were so many great players, and everything was handled first-class in terms of travel and the places that you played. It was a great situation.
“But I truly enjoy working the most with Astral Project. When you’re out on the road, the only reason that you’re doing this is for the music. If that’s not happening, it makes the traveling tedious. I really look forward to every gig that we do.”
From his vantage point as a New Orleans regular for the past two decades, Dagradi has seen the music scene there change gradually since the late ’70s. “The thing that remains the same,” he says, “is just how important music is to the people, and how it’s passed down from generation to generation. On any given night, you can see not only all the variations of American music available, you can hear the unique things like the Mardi Gras Indians and the brass bands. [Music] is truly part of the city’s fabric.”
While he’s hesitant to speculate about how much buzz Astral Project will generate on its current tour, Dagradi praises Compass for helping to expose the group outside of New Orleans. Astral Project will only play a handful of dates during the rest of the summer, but they’ll go back out on the road in September, head to Europe in October, then resume a lengthy series of one-nighters in November.
Those who bemoan the absence of genuine bands on the jazz scene shouldn’t miss Astral Project. The group has a unique chemistry that recalls such renowned groups as Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers and Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Perhaps even more significantly, they represent a caliber, and a style, of jazz musician that local audiences rarely get to see.
Astral Project appears Aug. 17 at Gibson’s Caffé Milano.
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