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There's an abundance of heat and creative energy flowing from the epicenter of Astral Project, a New Orleans-based quintet whose ethereal name belies its usual choice of straight-ahead bop-influenced Jazz with a Crescent City ambiance. While saxophonist Dagradi seems to be the main man, everyone in the ensemble has a well-defined role to play, and consummates it without mishap. The dozen tunes on Elevado (all of which were written by members of the group including "Carnival" by pianist Mike Pellera who sits in for Torkanowsky on "Lauren Z"), while somewhere short of memorable, serve well the quintet's forthright purpose. Dagradi wrote five of them (including the last three), bassist Singleton and guitarist Masakowski three apiece. Dagradi's "O.F.O." (One for Ornette) is a ballad that seldom intrudes on the more audacious terrain favored by Coleman. Dagradi also wrote the session's other ballads, "Too Soon to Tell" and "N.O. Goodbyes," and the faster-paced "Nose Dive" and "Astral Elevation." What draws one's ear and sets Astral Project apart from many groups its size are the captivating rhythmic patterns, especially as laid down by drummer Vidacovich on Singleton's "Bulldog Run" and "Lauren Z" or Pellera's "Carnival." Vidacovich simply calls it "street drumming," but it's seldom heard anywhere outside New Orleans. Dagradi, by the way, plays soprano (and quite well) on "Lauren Z," tenor on every other number. Solos other than his are generally more abbreviated but Masakowski, Singleton and Torkanowsky acquit themselves well when called upon to step forward. Above all, Astral Project performs seamlessly as a unit, which may be why it's not called the Tony Dagradi Quintet. Solid mainstream Jazz by a group that deserves to be heard. Luminous rhythmic sorties also predominate on New Orleans LA, the quintet's earlier release (recorded between 1990-95). Dagradi's voice isn't quite as prominent here, although he's hardly tongue-tied either. Dagradi's tenor and soprano have their say, and he wrote four of the disc's 10 selections (everyone in the group had a hand in "Instant Composition," an off-the-cuff improvisation dedicated to Nat Adderley). Also on the program are Singleton's "Bongo Joe," Masakowski's "Sidewalk Strut" and tunes by Strayhorn ("A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing"), Monk ("I Mean You") and Carla Bley ("Viking Song"). "Sidewalk Strut" is a highlight, again thanks in part to drummer Vidacovich's remarkable ability to reproduce the street rhythms of New Orleans and in part to a ringing solo by Masakowski. Strayhorn's ballad, the disc's second-longest track at 9:12 (recorded live), includes a lovely introductory passage by Torkanowsky and Joe Henderson-inspired blowing by Dagradi (on tenor). His own composition, "Miles" (another dedication, we assume), rests in the sort of funky groove often favored by the trumpeter in his later years, and the group offers a perky, rhythmically intense version of Monk's "I Mean You." Dagradi's "Indian Folk Song," recorded in 1990 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, is another winner, with the rhythm section cooking on all burners before an appreciative audience. Dagradi's expressive tenor is at home on Bley's brooding "Viking Song," which closes the session. Again, nothing groundbreaking, but more than a hour of solid, fast-paced straight-ahead Jazz.
Elevado - Bulldog Run; Paladia; Carnival; Lauren Z; Too Soon to Tell; Gator Bait; Miller; O.F.O.; Burgundy; Nose Dive; N.O. Goodbyes; Astral Elevado (64:52). New Orleans LA - Bongo Joe; Oneness; Sidewalk Strut; Instant Composition; Supersonic Hawk; A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing; Miles; I Mean You; Indian Folk Song;
Elevado - Tony Dagradi, saxophones; Steve Masakowski, guitars; David Torkanowsky, piano; James Singleton, bass; John Vidacovich, drums; Michael Pellera, piano ("Lauren Z"). New Orleans LA - same as above but without Pellera.