Astral Project - band/ensemble
Over the past 30 years, the New Orleans band Astral Project has evolved from a jazz group that played four or five nights a week on Bourbon Street or at Tyler’s Beer Garden where bassist James Singleton, drummer Johnny Vidacovich and keyboard player David Torkanowsky, who left in 2001 were the house rhythm section to the city’s preeminent contemporary jazz group. That endurance surprises Vidacovich but not guitarist Steve Masakowski, the junior member of the group having only been with it for 20 years. “Whether we’d be playing together with Astral Project or not, I’d still be playing with all these guys.”
Keeping any relationship together for 30 years is remarkable. Think of how many good bands with every reason to stay together couldn’t do it. And in jazz, think of how many great combos were together for only an album or two. For Astral Project, lasting this long has as much to do with what it isn’t as what it is.
Saxophonist Tony Dagradi, a devoted student of Eastern philosophy, coined the band name as a reflection of the group's quest for a higher plane. As anyone who has seen the band in concert knows, every performance finds the band members reaching for the stars.
These veteran musicians -- known as tops on their instruments in jazz-rich New Orleans, each with many album credits as leaders and sidemen -- bring a wealth of diverse experience to the bandstand, which is why the group journeys into different musical spheres.
Founded in 1978 by saxophonist Dagradi, who started the group because “I wanted to have a place where I could do anything I wanted,” he says. Throughout the band’s life, though, everybody has had other gigs, and that’s certainly the case today. “Our individual careers have always been a part of the band,” he says. He is a full professor at Loyola, where he has taught since 1990. Although it’s currently inactive, he also leads the New Orleans Sax Quartet. Masakowski teaches as well. When University of New Orleans started its jazz studies program 17 years ago, he was brought on as faculty, and now he chairs the department. Vidacovich tours off and on with Joe Sample, plays weekly at the Maple Leaf with George Porter, Jr. and a guest in the Trio, and he regularly plays duo and trio gigs at d.b.a. with a rotating cast of collaborators.
Before Katrina, Singleton played bass with Rob Wagner and had 3Now4, a duo with pedal steel Dave Easley that frequently expanded to a trio that included sax player Tim Green. He put together other permutations on that group including the 3Now4estra and his string quartet. Then, after Katrina, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he has an active professional life. The move, though, hasn’t created problems.