Down in New Orleans there's more going on musically than just lazy funk grooves, infectious zydeco and brass bands and Dixieland combos in the tourist-friendly French Quarter.  The Crescent City is also home to one of the more adventurous working units in modern jazz today.

A co-op band comprised of five world-class improvisers and composers, Astral Propject has been New Orleans' best-kept secret for the past 20 years.  "We're getting old enough to be rediscovered," says founder Tony Dagradi.  They've been a favorite of out-of-towners at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.  And now with the national release of Elevado, their debut for Compass Records, folks north of Highway 10 in Louisiana will finally get a chance to hear this happening combo.

Every member of the Astral Project is holding serious credentials. Dagradi, a member of Carla Bley’s ten-piece band in the early ’80s, is a fiercely compelling improviser on both tenor and soprano saxes. An accomplished composer with five albums as a leader on Gramavision and Rounder, he contributes the poignant ballad “Too Soon To Tell” and two provocative, open-ended blowing vehicles in “Nose Dive” and “O.F.O. (One For Ornette).” Guitarist Steve Masakowski, former Blue Note recording artist who has also backed the likes of Dianne Reeves, Mose Allison and Rick Margitza, is one of the more fluid and formidable technicians on his instrument. He displays an effortless bop-flavored burn on his “Paladia,” a tune he had previously recorded on his 1996 Blue Note album, Direct AXEcess, as well as on Dagradi’s “Astral Elevado.”

Pianist David Torkanowsky, a ubiquitous session player and musical director for Rounder Records, tweaks the proceedings with drive and harmonic daring while drummer Johnny Vidacovich, a New Orleans legend who has played with Professor Longhair, James Booker and John Scofield, applies the magic touch. The bass, a sparse but vital presence in the band, is held down with authority by James Singleton, who also produced Elevado and contributes the album’s most lyrical offering in “Lauren Z.”

Bill Milkowski - Jazz Times (July 2002)