Perhaps it’s no surprise that when people in a band called Astral Project talk about the band, they get, well, spacey. “Snug Harbor is like a sacred space, and when we play there, it’s our sacred space. Even when we’re playing festivals, though, we’re struggling to get some elevation and altitude,” sax player Tony Dagradi says.
“Astral Project is a place I go on a regular basis that is very healing that still provides me with the surprises I need and crave,” bassist James Singleton says.
Over the past 30 years, the band has evolved from a jazz group that played four or five nights a week on Bourbon Street or at Tyler’s Beer Garden—where Singleton, drummer Johnny Vidacovich and keyboard player David Torkanowsky, who left in 2001 were the house rhythm section—to the city’s preeminent contemporary jazz group. That endurance surprises Vidacovich but not guitarist Steve Masakowski, the junior member of the group having only been with it for 20 years. “Whether we’d be playing together with Astral Project or not, I’d still be playing with all these guys.”
Keeping any relationship together for 30 years is remarkable. Think about how many friendships you had that have fallen by the wayside over the years. Think of the rising divorce rate. Think of how many good bands with every reason to stay together couldn’t do it. And in jazz, think of how many great combos were together for only an album or two. Miles Davis changed lineups like socks. The Radiators are managing the same feat this year, so maybe longevity was just in the air in 1978; for Astral Project, lasting this long has as much to do with what it isn’t as what it is.
One thing it isn’t is anybody’s sole gig. Dagradi started the group because “I wanted to have a place where I could do anything I wanted,” he says. Throughout the band’s life, though, everybody has had other gigs, and that’s certainly the case today. “Our individual careers have always been a part of the band,” he says. He is a full professor at Loyola, where he has taught since 1990. Although it’s currently inactive, he also leads the New Orleans Sax Quartet. Masakowski teaches as well. When University of New Orleans started its jazz studies program 17 years ago, he was brought on as faculty, and now he chairs the department. Vidacovich tours off and on with Joe Sample, plays weekly at the Maple Leaf with George Porter, Jr. and a guest in the Trio, and he regularly plays duo and trio gigs at d.b.a. with a rotating cast of collaborators.
Before Katrina, Singleton played bass with Rob Wagner and had 3Now4, a duo with pedal steel Dave Easley that frequently expanded to a trio that included sax player Tim Green. He put together other permutations on that group including the 3Now4estra and his string quartet. Then, after Katrina, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he has an active professional life. The move, though, hasn’t created problems.
“I feel like every aspect of my musical career has been improved by being here and dividing my time between here and there,” he says. He has found new inspiration in Los Angeles and its visual arts community, and he works to make himself available for the band. “Astral Project plays once a month at Snug Harbor and I’ve made more than 90 percent of those shows. We tour once a year and it’s easy for me to do that.”
“It’s high impact and high energy when we are together,” Dagradi adds.
Because the group isn’t anybody’s sole vehicle for musical expression, the tensions that create stress in other groups don’t surface in dramatic ways if they surface at all. There’s no demand for Astral Project to meet all of the members’ needs. The parts of their musical personalities that don’t find sufficient expression in Astral Project show up elsewhere. If anything, outside projects strengthen the band. Recently, Masakowski played an improvised show with Doug Garrison, Larry Sieberth and Rob Mazurek, an electronics-oriented cornetist from Chicago.
“Free improv with really great musicians is a great way to grow. It opens you up to possibilities, where you don’t feel very restricted,” he says. “If you’re comfortable in a musical situation like that, you can let the music go where it wants to go. Everybody in Astral Project is very comfortable with that kind of improvisation. Some of the tunes we do are based upon that. Johnny Vidacovich will write songs that are very open-ended, and James will write songs that are very open-ended that suggest a free improvisational component. We bring that when we’re playing a tune that has structure.”
After feeling artistically frustrated, the two other things that break up bands are money—or the lack thereof—and unfulfilled commercial ambitions. In the former case, they’ve been around long enough to get paid for what they do. “We’ve earned this respect,” Singleton says. “I’ve tried to manage my life to keep my nut so low that Astral Project can be my money gig.” In the case of the latter, Masakowski sees the relative lack of commercial intention as a positive thing. “When you get too involved in the corporate mentality and marketing, you start getting these subliminal pressures—maybe you should play something this way, maybe you should have this guy in the band, or maybe you should have this person front the band. It gets that way when you sign with recording labels. That’s one reason we’ve stayed pretty independent of that. We cringe when anybody tries to tell us anything.”
To some extent, the band’s lack of commercial aspiration came from its roots as a loose group that slowly evolved into something more solid. “I was just playing music gig to gig to gig to gig,” Vidacovich says. “There was no plan or scheme other than just play the music and do the best you can.” Dagradi conceptualized the group, but according to Masakowski, Singleton played an important role in helping it take a more definite shape. “Singleton got more involved with trying to develop the band as a marketable product that could tour and make records,” he says. “Before that, it was more like a loose relationship between the members. When we got more proactive in terms of making CDs and trying to realize that we had something special in the band, that’s when it started to take on a clearer identity as a band.”
But it also took on a more communal, organic character for very prosaic reasons. “I took my hands off the wheel when I started to teach,” Dagradi says. The time and attention demands of teaching were so extreme in the first year that the struggle of trying to balance his time between Loyola, Astral Project and his other performing obligations caused his attention to business to slip. David Torkanowsky picked up the slack at one point, and Singleton picked it up at another, booking some tours and doing some production
“Everybody realized at different points that this is a beautiful venture, this is something we love do to, so let’s keep it going,” Dagradi says. “Now it’s back to me and instead of being the young upstarts, we’re the elder statesmen.”
When Dagradi addresses this, it’s with a sense that if things could have been different, he’d like them to be. “Playing every night gets you so sharp, gets you so fluent,” he says. “It gets higher and higher every night. I’d do it every night if I could. I’d do it more, but circumstances don’t allow it.”
If the music has no particular commercial imperative, the music exists for its own purpose. “The music is the goal,” Vidacovich says. “It’s not the success, how many records we sell, how much money we make. We just play the freakin’ music.”
Absent the things that fracture bands, Astral Project has always been simply about music, or, more exactly, its music. “We never tried to sound like anybody else,” Masakowski says. “We never tried to sound like Art Blakey’s band or Wynton’s band.”
Dagradi agrees. “This is the situation where we can be absolutely ourselves and there’s an amount of trust on the bandstand that we don’t have anywhere else,” he says. “You can go out on a limb and know people will support you. I trust everybody in the band to know exactly what I’m doing, and I don’t have that on other gigs. If somebody’s stretching in the solo or just moving the music a little bit freer, everybody will go there. I don’t think there’s any other gig in town where you can do that with such a high level of musicianship. Astral Project, you have free rein to go anywhere you want and we’ll go with you.”
You’d think that freedom would come accompany their status. When you occupy the role the band and its members have in the music community, you’d think you’d feel able to do what you want on the bandstand. They all insist they do, but that’s not where the license comes from. Instead, it, too, comes from the music.
“When Tony’s understanding of energy music or the avant-garde of the 1960s [comes out], I don’t think it’s a conscious decision at all on his part,” Singleton says. “He has the deep moral code of what can come through. It has to come out organically. On any given night, we can blow each other’s minds. The trick is to not get distracted by that. If Tony plays something unbelievable, not to be distracted. To stay in it. The minute you recognize it as such, you’re not in it anymore. You’re out of it. Once the tune starts, your responsibility is to the other guys and then to the composition.”
The ability to support each other comes with time on the bandstand. It’s a function of experience, ears, taste, and a level of communication that the audience is rarely aware of. “Johnny pays so much attention to the music but the little inflections of body language,” Dagradi says. “You get to the end of the form of a solo, he intuitively feels that out and is going somewhere.”
Vidacovich admits that he learned to read his bandmates’ gestures out of necessity from playing festival stages where he couldn’t always hear them. But he does know the rest of the group awfully well. “I’m conscious of the way Tony breathes,” he says. He also has enough experience playing with him and playing intelligently constructed music to have an idea where his bandmates are and where they’re going.
That intimate knowledge of each others’ abilities can be a blessing and a curse. They know how to support each other musically, but they’re very, very aware of their artistic voices. When they compose, they compose aware of what a piece will sound like because they can imagine each others’ parts in their voices. For Masakowski, new material keeps the band from getting stale. “I’m familiar with the way Tony plays and the way Johnny plays, but I’m not familiar with the way they play on this new tune,” he says. Singleton echoes the sentiment. “I thought about having the band play old songs because of the 30th anniversary but no,” he says. That’s the beginning of the end. We have new tunes to do.”
And they have new tunes, ones that are relevant now. They’ll pull out older songs when they feel like it, but one function of age and a 30-year body of work is that it’s harder to call older songs at a moment’s notice. Besides, their new material is usually tied to the moment and environment just as much as vocal-oriented material is. 2002’s Big Shot was largely written on tour after September 11, 2001, when Masakowski’s sister had to escape the Twin Towers. The upcoming Blue Streak is Astral Project’s first album since Katrina, and it influenced the writing. One of Singleton’s tunes for the new album is titled “Dike Finger,” and three of Masakowski’s pieces took direct inspiration from Katrina.
Not surprisingly, their individual fingerprints are on their compositions, and not just their sounds. “Tony brings a piece of music to the rehearsal and it emerges as something different than the demo he creates,” Singleton says. “Steve’s compositions are so complete in their detail. He’s a writer, he composes great bass lines. My tunes—I create the bass part and the melody and very little else. The rhythmic conception is shaped by all the players, especially Johnny. There’s no point writing a specific drumbeat for Johnny. We’ve all tried it. Write something from your heart and the drum part will emerge from his heart.”
More than anything else, though, Astral Project has endured because of the relationships. They can read each other, and not just body language. “We don’t stroke each other a lot,” Singleton says. “About once every five years, I’ll hear Steve go, ‘Yeah, James.’ That means I did something serious because it never happens.”
“Astral Project is very much like a family, and the other guys are very much like brothers,” Masakowski says. The sense that they are a musical family isn’t just a metaphor, either. His daughter is a singer and his son’s at NOCCA and a bass player. Dagradi’s son handles the band’s album art and packaging, and when Dagradi wants to meet for an interview, he chooses a restaurant where Masakowski’s niece works. Generations together evokes memories of when they were younger musicians themselves learning from those a generation ahead, whether it was Red Tyler or trad guys on Bourbon Street. They’re not just part of a 30 year relationship; they’re part of the continuum of New Orleans tradition. “It’s a great feeling from a musical standpoint to see how the traditions evolve and continue, and it grows out of families,” Masakowski says, “blood-related families and families like the Astral Project.”
They’re aware of the role each plays in the group’s sound, and they clearly love it. Singleton is unabashed in his admiration for Vidacovich. Dagradi describes everybody in the band as the best at what they do. Masakowski recognizes that changing any of the members would completely change the sound, and the non-Astral Project activities only strengthen the group. They certain made Dagradi appreciate the band more. “It always felt good when we played,” Dagradi says. “I’d think, ‘Wow, this is the most fun thing I do.’”
With three of the four members in the group since the start and only one lineup change in the last 20 years, there’s no reason to think Astral Project won’t continue to be what it is. “It has as much a future as it does a past,” Vidacovich says. “There’s 30 years that led us up to now; that’s a pretty good foundation.”