By Jonathan Tabak
What's behind Astral Project? What's behind the longest standing, most
consistently innovative and compelling modern jazz band in New
Over twenty years playing together for one thing. That in itself
makes the band unique in a jazz world traditionally dominated by
star-leaders, with various, interchangeable sidemen in supporting roles.
But the leader-sidemen formula has always seemed at odds with one of the
most exciting, essential objectives of jazz, and especially New Orleans
jazz: group improvisation.
Yes, of course, it's possible for a group of skilled jazz musicians
who've never played together, or who have only played together a short
while, to get up on the bandstand, dive into some familiar material, and
suddenly find that magical, instantaneous communication, where, even as
one player goes out front to solo, they all feel like they are hurtling
through uncharted space as one entity. But that's rare and fleeting,
If we could assemble the ultimate dream gig, with, say, Max Roach on
drums, Charles Mingus on bass, Thelonious Monk on piano, John Coltrane
on sax, and Miles Davis on trumpet, it would look fantastic on paper
(and to a promoter). It would sell, but would it really jell?
In reality, how much more satisfying to listen to a group of seasoned
pros who have spent, literally, half their lives developing the deepest,
most intimate musical relationship with each other, who have composed a
truckload of original songs that are uniquely responsive to their
collective style and personality---songs which, like perpetually warm,
soft clay, can be shaped and re-shaped according to the spirit of the
moment. How exciting to watch pianist David Torkanowsky suddenly lock
eyes with drummer Johnny Vidacovich, and, in a fluid instant, they
react, and the song goes in a totally new direction, a direction which
saxophonist Tony Dagradi had (consciously or unconsciously?) hinted at
in his solo, but it's a whole new ball game now, and Tony's free to
enlarge his idea while bassist James Singleton subtly adapts the groove,
and guitarist Steve Masakowski realizes that a drone effect will create
the perfect crescendo...
With Astral Project, expect the unexpected; it's an ongoing process of
discovery for both band and audience. "That's what makes it
interesting, the unpredictable nature," says Masakowski.
"We really don't know what's going to happen."
Masakowski, who has put out several of his own records for Blue
Note (What It Was, Direct AXEcess), is actually the junior member
of the band, having not joined permanently until the mid-eighties,
but you would never guess from the seamless way he supports and
accents the music, and from the many stellar compositions he
contributes to the band's repertoire. (He wrote the title cut
on their new album, VoodooBop, for example.) With his solos,
he tastefully explores the extra range offered by his custom-built
seven string guitar. His fast, precise lines weave Greenwich
Village sophistication, Latin swing and the tangy Southern blues
of his native New Orleans into a mellifluous whole. Like all
five Astral Project members, he is a world-class musician, a
distinguished sideman, composer and leader who can work practically
anywhere, but who always returns to Astral Project seeking a
new level of transcendence.
"You go on certain gigs or certain recordings and people want you
to play well, they want you to support them, but they don't want every
bit of light that you have," says saxophonist Dagradi. "When
you come on the bandstand with Astral Project, I want everybody to give
me everything. Give me everything you got. No limitations at all. And
that's completely rare in this day and age, because if you go on most
any gig, everybody's got an agenda, parameters that they work in. We
don't. Our parameters are that we can go anywhere and whatever you do,
you expect the band to support you. And they do. If, by just a couple
notes sometimes, I indicate I want to go somewhere harmonically or
rhythmically or melodically, there will be somebody there in a
nanosecond, going, 'Yeah, I'm there, too,' and you know that there's no
problem with it."
It was Dagradi who originally formed Astral Project back in 1978, not
long after the twenty-four year old, Summit, New Jersey native first
arrived in New Orleans following a touring stint with funk band Archie
Bell & The Drells (famous for the hit "Tighten Up").
"I just thought I'd check out New Orleans for like a minute,"
Dagradi says. "I didn't think I'd like it here. The only thing I
knew about it was Dixieland, and I didn't want to do that, but then I
started working right away."
Dagradi quickly realized there was more to the New Orleans scene, and
began actively seeking out the right players to form a band. "I
needed a vehicle for me to present some of my own music, so I sat in
with everybody that I could. I went to Lu and Charlie's, which, at that
time, was the main jazz club. I sat in there almost every night. I also
sat in at Tipitina's and clubs on Bourbon Street, until finally I met
just about everybody that I know today. In a couple of months I really
found a lot of people. I was trying to find a good combination to play
with, and I picked Johnny [Vidacovich], James [Singleton] and David
[Torkanowsky], and, at least at that initial stage, I wanted a
percussionist, so I think it was James who suggested Mark Sanders (who
left the band for New York in the eighties). I hadn't met Steve
[Masakowski] yet, he was one of the few I didn't meet right
No stranger to Eastern philosophy, Dagradi named the band after his
objective: to elevate participants from the "physical plane"
to the more spiritually refined
"astral plane," hence, Astral Project.
It's a mission which remained constant and intensified over the years,
even as the band left behind its original sound. "My original
direction for the band was more electric and fusion," Dagradi says.
"I had James playing electric bass, and we did some covers of funk
bands. I had some tunes then that were more pop-fusion, but it soon
became evident that we were all of like mind and could go in another
direction. Our hearts were really more into improvisational
At first, Dagradi was the only one composing new music and arranging
gigs, but, after a few years, the others started contributing equally,
and the band's collective identity was forged. From that point forward,
Dagradi says, Astral Project "seemed to have a life of its
Meanwhile, that time in the early eighties was also an essential growth
period for the Astral Project musicians individually, as this is when
they began separately gigging and recording with a wide variety of
musicians. When Dagradi, for example, wasn't out touring with Carla
Bley's band at that time, he was, like the others, playing all over town
with James Booker, Professor Longhair, James Black, Alvin
"Red" Tyler, Ellis Marsalis, Earl Turbinton... soaking up
gallons of New Orleans' soulful influences (R&B, funk, soul,
second-line, etc.), while also learning how to adapt to almost any
As the young men branched out and developed into "first call"
sidemen and leaders themselves, Astral Project became an artistic haven,
where, free from the restrictions of specific genres or a leader's
requirements, they could experiment with new ideas and influences in a
totally supportive, comfortable environment.
"It's like going to a family dinner, as opposed to going to a
formal dinner, you know?" says Johnny Vidacovich in his infectious
New Orleans drawl. "I mean, you go to a formal dinner, you're
thinking, I got to sit straight and watch my manners. You go to a family
dinner, man, you're taken by the music of the family. It's the same
situation as with this band. I allow myself to be taken, because I have
no prerequisites and arrangements."
We're sitting in the artist trailer next the Jazz Tent, immediately
following this year's triumphant Astral Project Jazz Fest performance.
These guys remember when playing the Fest meant looking out on a small
crowd dancing in the mud. Today, an overflowing tent gave the band huge
ovations for their set, which mostly featured new songs from VoodooBop,
including a soft, fragile ballad, "Old Folks," sung with
bitter-sweet charm by Vidacovich.
"You can just sit up there with that much energy from the audience,
and the music plays itself, for me," he says.
I ask him about the moment during the tune "Sombras en la Noche
(Shadows in the Night)," when he pulled out his key-ring and began
shaking it into the mic, washing the symbols and toms with it for great
"I forgot my percussion instruments, so that was the first thing
I could think of that worked," he says.
"Good thing he didn't
forget his keys," jokes Masakowski.
"What's really cool is that most of my percussion instruments
are made out of old keys," Vidacovich says. The room erupts
in laughter, and Masakowski chimes in, "Yeah, from places
you've been evicted from."
Kidding aside, it's this endless inventiveness and finesse that makes
Vidacovich such an astonishing drummer. He coaxes new sounds from his
kit with each roll and splash, incorporating New Orleans street beats
and other dance rhythms to keep listeners on their toes. Time is kept
with laid back swing, but he's also constantly in flux, responding
fluidly to the music around him. You can see it in his posture and
crazed facial expressions: total and immediate responsiveness to the
moment at hand.
"One of the beauties
of this band is that you can hit something you don't want to
hear and one of the other guys will cover it up," says Singleton.
"Johnny's an expert at that. He can erase clams like no
one I've ever heard. That's what makes him one of the most brilliant
accompanists that I've encountered in my entire life. I'm pretty
much convinced it's almost a hundred percent unconscious. He's
just being so subservient to the good of the music that if something
comes by that needs to be erased, he will do it."
There is no complacency in
Vidacovich' playing; he is perpetually seeking the next musical
peak. Asked whether he thinks this year's Jazz Fest performance
was the band's best ever, Johnny replies, "I never really
call the best one the best one, because I'm always hoping for
one to be better. I can only say that today's is the second best.
If you want to know when the best performance was, it's next
Just then David Torkanowsky struts into the room, causing a seismic
shift in the mood. Everyone is suddenly alert, as though an invisible
grenade is being tossed around. Torkanowsky's aura of mischief
and unpredictability creates a spontaneous atmosphere that is
a big part of his creative power within the band. He keeps people
on their toes, forcing them to take chances. On piano, he can
range from edgy, abstract dissonance to romantic classicism to
romping boogie-woogie (and often does within a single solo).
But no matter what he plays, it is always intense.
Scrambling through my notes
to find a question, I ask him what he thinks has changed most
with the band over the years, and what has remained the same.
He replies, "What's changed the most? The depth and profundity
of our communication has just changed so much for the better.
And what has stayed the same? The money."
This causes a roar of laughter
from the other guys, but also spawns an interesting discussion.
After all, why hasn't this totally unique, immensely talented
band received the recognition (and corresponding pay) that it
deserves? The most obvious reason is that, until recently, they
were so consumed with making the music that they mostly ignored
the business end. They were also constantly distracted by all
their jobs as sidemen, music professors (in Dagradi and Masakowski's
case), film scorers and record producers (in the case of Torkanowsky,
who produces records for Diane Reeves).
Only in the last several
years has Astral Project taken such preliminary steps as hiring
a manager and booking agent, and it has already paid off. They
are finally receiving serious recognition in the national press,
and they signed with independent label Compass Records, who last
year released Elevado, the group's second album (the first, their
self-produced, eponymous debut, came out in '94). This year,
the band quickly followed up with VoodooBop, which was one of
the top sellers at the Jazz Fest. In June, they'll benefit from
primo exposure when they go out on a mid-western festival tour
with their old friend, internationally acclaimed jazz/pop vocalist
and classical conductor Bobby McFerrin. (McFerrin used to sit
in regularly with Astral Project, back when he lived in New Orleans
Does this mean the band is
working towards a point where Astral Project is the "main
gig" and everything else is secondary?
"That would certainly
be the Mount Olympus of our efforts," says Torkanowsky.
Vidacovich agrees, "Yes, because of the amount of joy we
get from the work, the actual musical work is a joy, it's not
a labor at all. It's like a super sport, you know, like playing
ball with guys who really know how to play ball. It's like the
ball just stays in bounds. As long as we keep the ball in bounds,
But despite these positive
developments, the members of Astral Project know the odds are
stacked against them. Their music doesn't fall into any easily
marketed category, even within jazz, which, for the last twenty
years, has increasingly focused on young, emerging artists and
stressed a conservative, historically self-conscious approach.
"When I came up it was
ultra-taboo to align yourself with any tradition, and now its
the opposite," says Singleton. "Now it's become popular,
but in some ways I think it's coming back around. You see a lot
of these jam bands and it seems like people are eager to hear
unique and original statements, and that's why I think our popularity
is growing. The whole doctrinaire approach to improvising has
pretty much played itself out."
During Jazz Fest, Singleton
participated in a late night "Superjam" concert at
the Howlin' Wolf, which brought him together with John Medeski,
Michael Ray, Marc Ribot, Stanton Moore and others, and which
drew a large, young crowd. "There were a thousand people
there, you couldn't get in, and hundreds of people in the street.
It was totally improvised and the audience was with us. It reminded
me of an Astral Project concert, where we go completely out,
yet the audience is still with you because you set them up for
that, you set them up for the unexpected, and when you come back
with the groove, they're ready for that, too. But those weren't
twenty year old kids on the bandstand. They were just as gray
as this band, more so. It's not about age. People are hungry
for something that has the energy that comes with a unique statement,
a statement that is not some slavish tribute to iconoclasts of
Singleton does far more than
just talk about breaking new ground. Not only is he one of the
few bassists who can play convincing funk on the upright, his
solos and compositions consistently push the envelop. The last
cut on the new record, his "The Queen Is Slave To No Man,"
for example, has no preconceived form except for the intro and
ending, forcing the musicians to instantly compose new material
every time it's played. His side project, Three Now Four, is
geared even more towards jettisoning the established forms.
"I think there is a
growing public that loves to see musicians on the high wire act
and see us going for something," says Singleton. "I
mean, you can prop up some museum piece for only so many years
before people start to smell the dead fish. It's like, 'Come
on, where's the new stuff? What are you really bringing to the
On the final Sunday night
of Jazz Fest at Snug Harbor, Astral Project brings everything
to the party. Tired of playing songs from the new VoodooBop record
all Jazz Fest, they decide to shake things up a little by dipping
into the well, dusting off a few tunes like "Bongo Joe"
and "Hector's Lecture" that they haven't played in
five years, and reinvigorating them. The five members dive in
with an almost reckless abandon and the music gets white-hot
very quickly. Soon, the audience is afraid to clap after each
solo for fear of missing the next equally intense moment. At
one point, Torkanowsky is making all sorts of percussion sounds
on the piano, muting strings, beating on the wood, slamming the
keyboard lid, anything to create fresh syncopation. Singleton
is hunched over his bass, eyes closed, face contorted into painful
"It's very pleasurable,
it's sometimes painful and it's everything in between,"
says Singleton later, attempting to describe how it feels to
be up there. "It can be funny, also. Musical humor is kind
of a funny idea, but it happens. You end up hitting a cliche
that everybody knows and everybody laughs because that came out.
There are many exquisite moments and there are bad times, too,
when you hear yourself play something that is distasteful and
you have to deal with it. The jazz masters say you can hit any
note as long as you justify it with the next note. Just don't