Most bands function on stability. A solid and well-organized unit, so the thought goes, will work together the best. Without the ambitions of solo glory or outshining each other, the best groups stick together and move toward a goal for the greater good.
Astral Project, who play at the Iron Post this Sunday, Oct. 21, stand in contrast to these norms, forming a jazz band in name only. Members come and go at will, and some songs only include a few players of the quintet. For Tony Dagradi, leader and saxophonist, it’s something key to the New Orleans jazz scene, his adopted residence after growing up in suburban New Jersey. “That’s an essential slice of New Orleans music and one that struck me immediately when I got here,” he said.
His group is an extension of that idea. “Astral Project, for me, was always a haven where anything could happen,” Dagradi said. With talented members at his disposal – “some of the best musicians in the world,” he claims – it gave Dagradi the freedom to create a level of music that has sustained itself over an almost 30-year career. “Astral Project was always a place where you could explore [music] in any way you wanted and at the highest level possible,” Dagradi said.
In jazz, it would seem even more imperative to have stability and cohesion. With few chords and scales to guide improvisation, groups need to be in absolute sync, having a constant awareness of balance and blend while maintaining a good sound. Having remained together and strong, Astral Project shows that with talent, these rules are as fluid as the music itself.
At a young age, Dagradi’s musicianship and style came from a usual place. “Early on, my most important influence was John Coltrane,” he said. “I modeled my sound after his quite a bit.” As he grew up, his tastes broadened to include the iconic figures of Sonny Rollins, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, some of the greatest saxophone legends.
“All of those people were very important, and I studied their recordings, transcribed their solos,” he said. “Hopefully, all that shows up.”
New Orleans has always been the mythical home of jazz where many of Dagradi’s influences got their start, but after Hurricane Katrina, many musicians fled and haven’t returned; others lost everything they had.
To Dagradi, this tragedy isn’t wholly crushing. “There’s a lot of new people that have come here,” he said. “A lot of the younger people are bringing fresh things . and there’s so many good, young musicians here.” Jazz thrives on constant evolution of accepted forms – that’s how it began, of course – and with more youth, it can only get better.
Astral Project’s musicians are not young, but with the wealth of talent gained through its members’ various experiences, the expansion and evolution of their sound is almost inevitable.
Don’t miss Astral Project at the Iron Post this Sunday, Oct. 21. Tickets are $8.