Springtime in Louisiana is high season for music pilgrims. Some can be identified by their tropical, festival branded shirts bedazzled with music-related pins from every town in Cajun country. Others make themselves known by the overstuffed bags of vinyl and music books dangling from each arm as they stand on curbs awaiting airport rides on those first sleepy days after Jazz Fest. Their interests tend to be regional and their voyages, seasonal.
David Lasocki, who recently completed publishing a five-volume series about Astral Project, capping off 16 years of work, is a different kind of devotee.
A music reference librarian at Indiana University Bloomington, Lasocki’s prolific research in the history, repertory and performance practices of woodwind instruments in the 15th through 18th centuries, once inspired the Hungarian recorder and Baroque flute player Janos Bali to anoint Lasocki, “the central personality of recorder research.”
As such, he had been happily publishing academic articles such as “The Bassanos and The Silkworm Moth,” and collaborating with colleagues on tomes like, A Biographical Dictionary of English Court Musicians, 1485-1714, when a local jazz series in Bloomington brought Tony Dagradi, Steve Masakowski, James Singleton, and Johnny Vidacovich to town.
Lasocki, who, perhaps not inconsequentially, has also practiced energy healing for much of his adult life,had never heard of Astral Project. “New Orleans jazz to me,” he admitted in a recent phone conversation, “meant traditional jazz.” Astral Project was something else altogether.
“I had never heard anything like it before,” he says, his voice still bearing the imprint of his upbringing in Manchester, England.
“What I literally felt in my body was a very high, spiritual vibration … and funk. I was completely captivated. It was the visual appearance, too. James was wearing this blazer that was orange and red,and he was just off in the clouds the whole time. I thought, This is very strange, but the playing was just fantastic,” he continues. “And Johnny V was, like, falling on the floor and rolling around. Whatever he was doing—he had bells and whistles—literally, bells and whistles. And the interplay among the group!”
Lasocki exchanged contact information with Dagradi after the show and began writing to him. He also began buying everything they’d ever recorded, both as a group and individually. By the time he was writing extensive discographies for Astral Project, he realized his woodwind research seemed less exciting. He had a sabbatical coming up, so he proposed to Dagradi a plan to come to New Orleans and see them live and interview them for a book.
Within a few years, Lasocki had returned three times, interviewed about 40 people and written about 800 pages, which he printed out for the band the next time they were in Indiana.
Dagradi “wasn’t discouraging, just a little skeptical” of the length, Lasocki recalls with a laugh. Ultimately, he decided to write a series of five separate books, instead, comprised of Higher Fusion: The New Orleans Modern Jazz Group Astral Project at 40; Tony Dagradi: A Spiritual Approach to Jazz; Steve Masakowski: Big Easy Innovator; James Singleton: Rhythm Crusader; and Johnny Vidacovich: John Vidacovich of New Orleans on the Drums and on the Cymbals, the series details each band member’s musical development leading up to, and then in the context of their ensemble.
The books are set up chronologically and thematically—and they are dense, drawing largely on interviews, much of which are printed in bulk sections of text, tied together with facts and figures and snippets of published reviews. One section, for example, lists each musician who played in Vidacovich’s trio over a period of years, along with the number of performances that person played and, in some cases, what percentage of time that person appeared in the trio.
Others use first-person stories to portray the scene and vibe at famous, now defunct jazz clubs like Lu & Charlie’s, and Tyler’s.
Comprehensive discographies at the end of each book, along with notes and lagniappe from the interviews, offer points of departure for other Astral Project fans and historians, particularly with regard to the musicians’ stylistically diverse musical expertise.
“The first [writing] phase was like writing my dissertation all over again. Only there was more information,” the writer jokes.
Asked what he cut prior to publication, Lasocki says that although he was also writing other books and articles during the 16 years it took to complete the Astral Project series, his “reference mentality” led him to include every detai and date, each painstakingly confirmed.
“This is my sort of bibliographical—well, discographical—approach to life. If I really like something, I just want to experience as much of it as I possibly can,” he says.
Looking back, Lasocki admits he’s enjoyed watching new developments in Astral Project’s sound since 2002.“They’ve become even more contrapuntal,” he notes, though he quickly returns to his memory of hearing them for the first time.
“My very first impression was that they really could put me on the astral plane. I could really feel it. It wasn’t just funky—it has this depth,” he says. “I continue to feel that’s the greatest thing I got out of this whole project.”
Friday April 26,
WWOZ Jazz Tent, 2:50 p.m.