What's behind Astral Project? What's behind the longest standing, most consistently innovative and compelling modern jazz band in New Orleans?

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, isn't it?

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 away."

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 music."

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 own."

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 musical situation.

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 effect.

"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 year."
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 in 1979.)

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, we're cool."

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 the past."

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 party?'"

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 ecstasy.

"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 stop."

- Jonathan Tabak