By Larry Englund
Larry Englund hosts the weekly radio show "Rhythm and Grooves" for KFAI Radio Without Boundaries. This interview originally aired on Tuesday, September 22, 2009, midway through the band's fall tour in support of its latest CD, Blue Streak. bb
Astral Project is often called the best contemporary jazz band in New Orleans, with good reason. They play with the cohesion of a band that’s been together for decades, and the passion of youngsters. Their music is at times outside, inside, funkified, and even a bit sanctified.
Tony Dagradi is the leader of the group. Playing a number of saxophones, he can surprise a jaded listener by taking the soprano sax places smooth jazzers have never dreamed about.
I had a chance to talk with Dagradi by phone from his New Orleans home, shortly before the group left for its September tour of the Midwest.
LE: You’ve been together, what, 30 years?
TD (Laughing): We started when we were in kindergarten.
LE: Are you all natives of New Orleans?
TD: Johnny Vidacovich and Steve Masakowski, the drummer and guitarist are native. James Singleton and I both arrived in New Orleans around 1977. I don’t know how long you have to be here to be a native.
LE: It sounds like you’re a native now.
TD: Yeah. You get involved in the scene and you’re part of the community, ultimately.
LE: What brought the four of you together?
TD: It was mostly my concept. When I arrived in New Orleans, I had been playing with a great group I had in Boston called Inner Visions. I wanted to have a group, someplace where I could do whatever I wanted. After I was in New Orleans awhile I scoped out the local artists and there were many. I just brought people together that I thought would be a good combination.
LE: Did you move to New Orleans specifically to start a different kind of group?
TD: No. Actually, that wasn’t why I moved here. It was just something I had to do while I was here. I moved to New Orleans because I didn’t want to go back to Boston and actually I only intended to check it out and stay for a short time myself. But… the music scene is so vibrant and so incredible that I just kept staying and staying.
LE: When you brought the other members of the group together, what was your concept?
TD: l had in mind to do something a little more electronic, with electric keyboards, and an electric bass, because this was 1978. I was thinking about Miles. I was thinking about Weather Report. But the more we played it became apparent that our backgrounds and hearts were really in acoustic and very interactive music. So it started out from that fusion place but ultimately went to very acoustic jazz and very interactive music.
LE: It seems you depend a lot on individual contributions from each of the band members for your repertoire.
TD: Absolutely. Everybody writes. I probably bring in about 50% of what we do, Steve writes a lot. Steve Masakowski is a great, great composer. James is a unique composer. Johnny writes probably the least, but when he brings in something, it’s great.
LE: is there any other way the band has evolved over the 30 years you’ve been together?
TD: It’s subtle. From an instrumental and orchestration standpoint, initially we started out with keyboards, bass, drums, sax, and we had a percussionist. As things moved forward in time the percussionist, Marc Sanders, moved to New York. So we were a quartet for a moment and then we added Steve. Steve is the junior member, he’s only been here 20-something years. David Torkanowsky was the pianist, and it turned out that he just got busier and busier doing other stuff, involved in studio work, so when we would go out on tour it would be a conflict. Ultimately we said let’s lose the keyboard and keep it lean and mean as a quartet. That’s the way I’ve liked it the best so far.
LE: You do a lot of the writing and get writing from other members of the band. When you bring in a song, or Johnny does, or Steve does, how do you go about arranging the song?
TD: We rehearse very infrequently, but when we do what happens is someone brings in their music and they have a good idea of what they want. But… everybody looks at the music and decides, or takes a little liberty with it and develops his own part. That sometimes involves the actual arrangement, like “Let’s loose the interlude, or only do the interlude in one place.” So the arrangement itself evolves a little bit at the rehearsal, but then a lot on the bandstand.
LE: Obviously after so much time together you can read each other well. You don’t have to look at each other and say "I’m going to take a chorus now."
TD: If you talk to John Vidacovich, he’ll tell you he just watches people’s body language. He knows when somebody is going to take that next chorus or not. That’s the way he plays. He watches people and looks to help shape the individual solos by his support. He’s watching body language, listening to what’s happening. There’s a lot of trust and a lot of things have evolved, so that we do know each other’s playing pretty well.
LE: Individually, you have all played with some of the giants of New Orleans music. What did you learn from that?
TD: New Orleans is the most important city when you start talking about jazz, where it started to begin with. The music was in the air and happening in lots of places, but geophysically, New Orleans is a very unique place. The fact that it’s surrounded by water and totally isolated has helped it to sustain its individuality and culture. There are so many elements, the culture, the melting-pot aspect, there was so much music here from so many different places. That’s why the music evolved here as it did. Given that, there’s a tradition of families – the Marsalises, the Jordans, the Batistes. There are a lot of extended families, so that anybody who’s from here is probably related to a musician. (Laughs.) It’s part of the fabric of the whole city, so that if you’re not related, you probably know a lot of musicians. But I think, to answer your question: We’ve all had a chance to play with Professor Longhair. I’ve recorded with Ellis Marsalis. We all take part in this big community. The one thing that really I found exciting and remarkable when I first got here was that you would go to one gig and it might be a wedding. You would go to another and it might be a funk gig at a club, and you would go to another and it would be a straight jazz gig. And you would see some of the same faces on all those gigs. For me that showed how versatile the individual musicians are and how connected they are.
LE: One of the things I’ve noticed over the last 10-15 years of Jazz fest is how much more interaction there is between all kinds of musicians. You would see someone in a funk group, and then they’d play jazz…
TD: Traditional jazz, gospel.
LE: Lots of one-off combinations to, well, make some money, to entertain people, and for the joy of playing together.
TD: That’s one thing about Astral Project. We all do all those gigs. But.. when we come to Astral Project the environment is such that you can play anything. If you play with a rhythm & blues guy, he doesn’t want to hear you play outside the changes, he doesn’t want to hear rhythmic complexities. It has to be at a certain level to be right, but in Astral Project anything is right, anything is okay, and that’s what we’ve all grown to really love about the band.
LE: That’s how you keep things fresh and interesting for each other.
LE: You teach as well.
TD: I’m a professor of saxophone at Loyola University. Steve is head of the jazz program at the University of New Orleans. So I do that a lot, but this year I’m on a sabbatical.
LE: When you meet with students for the first time, what’s the first thing you tell them about what they need to do to be successful, or to do what they want with their music?
TD: Hmm... The fist thing is to learn how to make a beautiful sound. (Laughs.) I’m not talking about a lot of notes, just taking one note and making it sound beautiful. That would be the first thing. After that, that opens a can of worms. After you’re an accomplished musician, after you can technically play the instrument, then you have to decide what you want to play. What kind of music makes you feel good? I tell my students, if somebody called you for a festival or recording session, what ten tunes would represent you as an artist? That’s a big question. And if you’re a composer, that’s great. You really should be a composer, because that’s how you can make some money. If you’re a jazz artist, you are a composer by very nature.
LE: To change the subject a little bit. People always wonder what artists did during Katrina. The new album, Blue Streak, has parts that are a response to Katrina, just as Big Shot has some tunes that were a response to 9/11.
TD: I think artists always reflect their time. Steve is really good about that. We did a whole suite on Big Shot about 9/11. We were on tour right on 9/11 in someplace like Indianapolis, I believe, and Steve’s sister worked in the World Trade Center, so he was freaking out. There was a lot of anguish and trying to get through with phone calls. It was a very heavy time. For Katrina, what’s really amazing is that we all evacuated, but what’s amazing is that none of our houses were flooded. We all came back and there was damage and debris and stuff but we all had our roofs, but no water got into our houses. We also had a tour planned immediately after Katrina so we met in Chicago after not having been home for three or four weeks and everybody evacuated to different parts of the country. It was really emotional.
LE: You are coming to the Artists' Quarter for the first time.
TD: Yes. We’ve been to the Dakota a number of times, but this is our first time at the Artists' Quarter. I’m thinking it might be a better place for people to just listen.
LE: You’ll be playing stuff from the Blue Streak album. Any other material?
TD: Our performing repertoire always includes stuff from all of our CDs. Because on each CD, there’s some... not that any song is better than other cuts on the CD, but some have more longevity in the repertoire. We absolutely do stuff from every one of our CDs.
LE: You’ll have some for sale there.
TD (laughing): Oh yes, the economics of touring.
LE: Do you have a distribution deal at all?
TD: No. The last three projects we’ve done, we’ve done on our own. I’ve talked with a bunch of people who are very prominent artists, and everybody’s thinking about not doing a label, because everything is changing so much.
LE: We look forward to seeing you. I imagine there will be two sets per night
TD: Whatever they want. (Laughs.)
LE: Whatever the audience screams for?
TD: Whatever the club owner wants. (Laughs some more.) I’m a hired hand at that point. We’re really looking forward to coming to Saint Paul.
Photo of Tony Dagradi and James Singleton by John Whiting