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Astral Project: VooDooBop

Ed Kopp By

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The five members of Astral Project are among New Orleans' finest musicians. Each has an impressive resume that extends beyond jazz to rock, blues, pop, funk, R&B — the whole gamut of Crescent City musical styles. These dudes form an amazingly tight unit, no doubt owing to their 20-plus years of playing together. VooDooBop is packed with fluent musical conversations that seem almost extrasensory.

Recorded in a French Quarter mansion, VooDooBop was produced by John Fischbach, who mixed and mastered Stevie Wonder's classic '70s albums.

Unlike the band's last release — the equally engaging Elevado — the music here is straight-ahead jazz with no overdubs and very few pop touches. It 's clever bop variously combined with loose blues, second-line grooves, soulful balladry and multiple modern nuances. There's remarkable teamwork on this CD, many inspired improvisations, and a whole lot of Crescent City charm. Some of the 11 tunes are mellow, some are wild, some are pensive, and some are quirky. All are very, very fine.

Saxman and leader Tony Dagradi is masterful throughout VooDooBop. He plays his tenor sax in Brecker-like fashion on the title track. Then he delivers a beautifully melodic soprano sax performance during the poignant ""Protecting Circle." Later he blows his tenor with free-spirited abandon on "Fall Out," an eccentric bop march. The man has more chops than a pig farm.

The bottom end of Astral Project is equally strong. Drummer Johnny Vidacovich has long been regarded as the best skinsman in New Orleans. His playing here is intricate yet infectious, and he invokes the second line with every beat on the faster tracks. Vidacovich even sings with hip sentimentality on "Old Folks," the lone cover. Bassist James Singleton is Vidacovich's partner in counterpoint, and he's an energetic player. I especially love the funky groove Singleton lays down on "Foxy Roxy," arguably the catchiest track on the album.

Down Beat recently called Steve Masakowski a "thinking fan's Pat Metheny" — clearly an insult to us Metheny lovers but a well-deserved plug for this talented guitarist. In addition to writing the title track, Masakowski penned "Sombras en la Noche," a tricky Cuban-influenced track, and the slinky "Southern Blue," which features some gorgeous piano work by DavidTorkanowsky. Both Masakowski and Torkanowsky give impressive performances on VooDooBop.

Each of the players in Astral Project could do just fine on his own, but together they create something truly special. Whether it's a serpentine bop excursion, a Monk-inspired melody, or a sleepy Southern ballad, this group takes elements from multiple genres and blends them in rich and wonderful ways — much like the city they call home. Moreover, Astral Project's original compositions are very melodic, a rare quality in mainstream jazz.

Here's hoping VooDooBop garners more attention for this superb band from the Big Easy.

Title: VooDooBop | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Compass Records

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