Astral Project,
(Compass, 1999)

What's in a name? Not enough to hide the talents of Astral Project. Last year, when my local jazz organization booked Astral Project as part of their concert series, I was hesitant. I wasn't familiar with the group, and the name made me think of some third stream, smooth jazz aggregation, maybe with some wimpy electronic keyboard, a drummer who used brushes exclusively, an electric bassist, and, if we were lucky, a front man, probably using a muted trumpet or a soprano sax. The music would probably be weavy, indistinct melodies, and riffs that repeated over and over again and droned away into silence.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

Astral Project proved to be one of the most kickass bands I had ever heard. From out of New Orleans, these five guys played with all the passion and fire associated with that city's wide range of music, and proved themselves instant contenders. I quickly snapped up their CD, Elevado, played it until the aluminum melted, and I'm happy to announce their new CD, VooDooBop.

The band consists of Tony Dagradi on saxes (yeah, he plays soprano, but it's more ballsy Bechet than the weenie Mr. G), Steve Masakowski on seven-string and acoustic guitar, James Singleton on bass, David Torkanowsky on piano and organ, and John Vidacovich on drums and percussion. The tunes are all originals, except for "Old Folks," which is also the album's only vocal, a sweet, growly, and dryly funny one provided by drummer Vidacovich.

The originals are all terrific pieces of music. "Sombras en la Noche" has a haunting lead line played in close harmony by Dagradi's tenor and Masakowski's guitar, while the piano and bass weave underneath, stepping forwards at times to add to the magic. The band hits a great funk mood in "Foxy Roxy," where Vidacovich's drums lay down a heavy bottom, and Torkanowsky switches between piano and organ, memorably trading fours with Masakowski.

"Southern Blue" starts with a New Orleans drum riff, but goes off in an unexpected, quirky, and delightful direction, while "Fall Out" is a bluesy, smoky, introspective piece, perfect for a late-night club date. "The Whole Truth" enters Monk territory, and "Deb's Garden" leads us through some musically dense and cerebrally green vegetation. The last cut, "The Queen Is Slave To No Man," becomes an actual tone poem in its complexity and richness of colors and sounds. Eerie and mysterious, it lodges in the mind, moving the listener from one strange horizon to another.

In short, there's something for everyone here, especially for the true lover of jazz, real improvisational music that isn't afraid to take chances and let you listen to things you've never heard before. Astral Project is one fantastic band, and VooDooBop is a perfect introduction to their adventurous sounds.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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