Astral Project Celestially Showers the States with Stellar Grooves

By Kristin Ciccone

The year is 1978. The night air is filled with stereos blasting recent releases such as “Night Fever” and “If I Can’t Have You,” as cars drive by en route to the local drive-in to catch new releases “Superman” and “Grease.” The world’s first “test tube baby” is born, and Space Invaders, the first ever video arcade game is launched. The Yankees win another World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the band Astral Project is formed down in The Big Easy.

The band known as Astral Project is finally, after 22 years, stepping into the light of the world and gaining the widespread respect and recognition it has long deserved. In a summer tour that has the quintet hitting cities all over the nation (as well as a couple European countries thrown in for a little flavor), the jazz ensemble Astral Project has garnered fans from all walks of life, including a strong contingent of improvisational music enthusiasts.

“What we do during a performance is what I like to call ‘composing in the groove’ and I think these fans really appreciate that,” offers bassist James Singleton as an explanation. “They might not buy a CD, but they will pay good money to see a show where the musicians are playing so hard they are sweating and taking risks with their music, an that is what Astral Project is about.” The band, named after leader Tony Dagradi’s objective to create music that elevates participants from the “physical plane” to a more spiritually connected “astral plane,” is in turn more than enthusiastic about the new found support from a different generation of music fans. “At first we did not know what to make of people taping our shows, explains Singleton, “but now we are completely gung-ho. Live tapes capture something about the band that you won’t find in a studio recording.”

Comprised of amazing musician-composers, each with their own set of accomplishments, it is no wonder fans everywhere are mesmerized by the group. Shortly after moving to New Orleans in the late seventies, Dagradi began assembling musicians for the combination which ultimately became Astral Project. Playing bass is James Singleton, who has shared the stages with the likes of John Scofield, Stanton Moore, and John Medeski. On guitar, playing a customized Baritone 7 string, is late-comer Blue Note recording artist Steve Masakowski, who joined the band in the mid-eighties. Keeping the beat of the band with N’awlins flavored rhythms is drummer Johnny Vidacovich, who has also performed with a variety of legends such as Professor Longhair, James Booker and Mose Allison. The son of a German symphony conductor and a Spanish flamenco dancer, pianist David Torkanowsky brings an eclectic blend of styles to the band with his broad range of experiences of which include touring with infamous New Orleans’ favorites such as the Meters and Dr. John. And last, but certainly not least, leading Astral Project is the very talented saxist Tony Dagradi, who in addition to touring as a featured soloist with the Carla Bley Band, has performed with many notable New Orleans talents, and released several solo albums on labels such as Rounder, Gramavision and Core.

Listen to Astral Project Live 04.23.2000 from the Snake & Weasel Portland, OR @ HearLive.com

Talented musicians aside, what is of remarkable interest is how the band managed to stay such a well kept secret for so long. With members constantly involved with outside projects, the band has not often strayed from its home base of New Orleans, and until recently did not even have a manager or a booking agent. “Astral Project has always been a zenith of a great fantasy for me,” describes Singleton. “Our music covers a lot of ground musically and is reflective of life. It has always been something that has felt good; a mindspring that we have all returned to from our various projects. Now we are building up gradual momentum, with the catalyst being the addition of a manager and a booking agent, both of which have freed us up to focus on being creative.”

With the new additions, things have started to move in a forward direction for the band. The month of August has the band hitting stages in Salt Lake City, Denver, Boulder, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Virginia Beach, Asheville N.C., and finishing up the month abroad at the Red Sea Festival in Eilat, Israel. Mixed in with those dates, Astral Project will also be making an appearance on one of the showcase stages during Berkfest. Singleton attributes the booking success of the band to the fact that originating from “the birthplace of jazz” has opened a lot of doors for the band. Fans would more than likely argue that it is the amazing talent and phenomenal improvisational performances that have these musicians on the road playing in many of the respective cities’ top jazz clubs.

Evidence of the talent of Astral Project lies concretely in the numerous awards won by the band. In the past decade the band has won several Big Easy Awards for Album of the Year (2000 for Voodoo Bop), and Best Modern Jazz Group (’93, ‘98-2000), several Offbeat Magazine Best of the Beat Readers Poll awards in the categories of Best Modern Jazz Group (‘96-’99), Best Overall Group (‘98), Best Modern Jazz Album (’98 for Elvado), as well as each member winning individual awards for their respective instruments (1996). The band has recorded three albums to date Astral Project: New Orleans, LA, Elvado, and their latest Voodoo Bop, an album that was recorded live with no separations or overdubs and features the bonus track “The Queen Is Slave to No Man,” written by Singleton whose only composed parts are the first and last minute, with the rest being improvisational.

Being that after twenty some odd years of performing together Astral Project has cultivated their improvisational abilities to create tightly woven grooves, this is one show you definitely won’t want to miss. To experience the otherworldliness of Astral Project for yourself, check out New Orleans’ best kept secret in a venue near you.

Listen to more Astral Project streaming audio at Austin360.com

Astral Project's Links Of Interest:

  • Official Website
  • Astral Project @ Jambase
  • [Published on: 8/3/00]

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