One could excuse the members of Astral Project if they get a little weepy and sentimental at their annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival gig. After all, this was there they debuted as a band in 1978, and every year since, without fail, they have improvised before increasingly larger and more receptive crowds at their hometown's musical blowout.

But they don't get sentimental. They just play. And at their 2002 JazzFest show in April, saxophonist Tony Dagradi, guitarist Steve Masakowski, bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich played with jubilant intensity. This proved to be a significant show: it was their first appearance at the fest as a quartet. Gone was pianist David Torkanowsky, whose relationship with the band came to an end last May. Since Torkanowsky's departure, the band has recorded a new album, Big Shot (released on their own label and available on, which layers sometimes infectious, sometimes gorgeous melodies above vicious, New Orleans-rooted beats. Without piano in the mix, the groove flows deep on Big Shot, and this runs over in the group¹s live show.

Down Beat caught up with the band in their trailer backstage at the Jazz Tent after their spirited show.

What¹s the anticipation like before playing this gig?

SINGLETON: I used to get nervous. But now it's just another hit.
DAGRADI: It felt like being at home today, playing with your friends.
SINGLETON: I was here yesterday, and I was hanging out all day today. Everywhere I walk I run into people for whom I¹ve been playing for 25 years. It really is familiar and comfortable.
MASAKOWSKI: Kind of like playing for family, but the family keeps growing.

Obviously, this is a special gig.

MASAKOWSKI: Every gig is special. But you know, this is just a great time of year to be in New Orleans, the food, the people. It's a great hang. It's special for us. We can drive to the gig.

Do you feel a renewed intensity to your playing?

MASAKOWSKI: Sure. We feel a boost after changing our format after 24 years. We¹ve now been a quartet for almost a year, since last May. We¹ve done a couple of tours, and we definitely feel more space, we¹re taking more risks.

The band now sounds more rhythmic.

MASAKOWSKI: There's more space for each one of us to play in, so we take advantage of it. Especially for me, it frees me up, but there's also a lot more responsibility, as I have to fill things in. I like that, because sometimes combining a piano player with a guitarist can be like oil and water. I've been playing guitar trio a lot, so this feels really natural when it comes to soloing, or when we solo together.
SINGLETON: Johnny's such an orchestrator. Sometimes it's fun to play even less and watch him or Steve fill in than do more. It an go either way.
MASAKOWSKI: We try every time we play to reinvent what we do. We play a lot of the tunes that are on the record, but when we play live we always inject something different. We¹re constantly writing new tunes. We need to keep it fresh

- Jason Koransky - Down Beat (July 2002)