Astral Project | Big Shot

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Big Shot

by Astral Project

"Big Shot", the band's first album in three years, showcases Astral Project's unique mix of funky street rhythms, exotic melodies and brilliant improvisation as never before.
Genre: Jazz: Traditional Jazz Combo
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. Big Shot
7:47 $0.99
2. Spherical
6:45 $0.99
3. Pandemonium
6:15 $0.99
4. Vigil
7:38 $0.99
5. Vengeance
7:06 $0.99
6. Magic Lantern
5:59 $0.99
7. X-Ray Vision
4:40 $0.99
8. Heart Of The Matter
5:45 $0.99
9. Retroactive
5:23 $0.99
10. Hymn
4:44 $0.99
11. Crescent City Strut
2:45 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes

Since 1978, Astral Project has been New Orleans' most exciting, inventive and respected modern jazz group. It's a co-op band comprised of world-class improvisers, hailed by fans and critics around the world.

Down Beat calls Astral Project "one of the most distictive and cohesive groups in jazz."

Jazz Times calls Astral Project "one of the more adventurous working units in modern jazz today."

Big Shot, the band's first album in three years, showcases Astral Project's unique mix of funky street rhythms, exotic melodies and brilliant improvisation as never before. From the inside-out groove of the title track to the collective improvisation of Pandemonium, the record displays the ban's peerless composiing and performing skills.

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 of artistry. 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 so many different musical spheres.

True to the original spirit of jazz, Astral Project creates real tunes and memorable melodies while giving the musicians freedom to incorporate influences from all sources. The group shifts direction like a flock of birds in flight with an ease so uncanny it seems to verge on telepathy. It's music that can come only from special individuals who have spent decades improvising together.

Leading Astral Project is Tony Dagradi performing on both tenor and soprano saxophones. With his stunning technique and singular tone, he brings emotional urgency to each solo. Over the years he has appeared with many of New Orleans' most notable musicians, including Ellis Marsalis, James Black, Allen Toussaint, The Meters, Dr. John and Professor Longhair. In addition to his local activities, he has worked with Bobby McFerrin, Nat Adderley, Donald Byrd and Norman Connors. He also spent five years as featured soloist with the Carla Bley Band, during which time he toured Europe, Japan and North America. Tony can be heard on many recordings. His most recent solo efforts include "Parading" (Mirliton Records), "Dreams of Love" (Rounder), and "Live at the Columns" (Turnipseed).

Steve Masakowski has long been regarded as one of the most awe-inspiring guitarists and composers in contemporary music. He plays unique seven-string guitars of his own design that are hand-made by New Orleans luthier Sal Giardina. Steve is a major voice whose extraordinary musicality has been welcomed in concert with such jazz greats as Woody Shaw, Carl Fontana, Dave Liebman, Jimmy Smith, Sam Rivers and, most recently, Dianne Reeves, Bennie Wallace and Rick Margitza. Among the awards and honors that he has garnered are two National Endowment For The Arts fellowships, several grants from The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and one from the Louisiana Division of The Arts. Steve"s own recordings include: "What It Was" (Blue Note), "Direct AXEcess" (Blue Note), "Mars" (Nebula), "Friends" (Nebula), "For Joe" (Compass) and Moon and Sand. His dynamic solo work can also be heard on recordings by Reeves, Mose Allison, Alvin "Red" Tyler and Margitza.

James Singleton is a conduit of pure energy who, to a large degree, defines the sound of Astral Project. His solid rhythmic concept and harmonic sense are the foundation of this innovative group's improvisational strength. James has performed in concert with such modern jazz musicians as John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Art Baron, Ellis Marsalis, Earl Turbinton and Eddie Harris. He has appeared with swing and traditional greats Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Lionel Hampton, Arnette Cobb and Banu Gibson. His extensive recording credits include work with Chet Baker, Alvin "Red" Tyler, James Booker, Charlie Rich and Zachary Richard. James produced the Astral Project album "Elevado". He is also leader of the experimental group 3 Now 4, which has released a self-titled debut and the new "Book of Spells" (G.E.S.).

In his very personal approach to percussion, master drummer John Vidacovich combines elements of New Orleans' traditional rhythms with free techniques and mainstream sensibilities. He is at once a brilliant soloist and a highly sensitive accompanist with the ability to detect and quickly enhance even the most subtle change of direction. His command of dynamics, distinctive melodic accents and effervescent swing have brought him international recognition as the quintessential modern New Orleans drummer. His unique style and conviction has led to performances with jazz masters Joe Henderson, Donald Byrd, Kenny Baron, Eddie Harris, Nat Adderley, Joe Williams, Ray Anderson and Bennie Wallace, plus work with such Southern legends as Professor Longhair, James Booker and Mose Allison. Most recently, John has toured with the young guitarist Charlie Hunter. John's albums as a leader include "Banks Street" and "Mystery Street" (both Chebasco), and his new solo album, "Vidacovich."




to write a review

Offbeat Magazine

One of New Orleans' most admired and respected jazz groups.
To say that Astral Project's latest CD, Big Shot, is the band's first release minus pianist David Torkanowsky isn't exactly exposing an elephant in the room. The ensemble, which was formed in 1978 and features saxophonist Tony Dagradi, drummer Johnny Vidacovich, bassist James Singleton and guitarist Steve Masakowski, has performed as a quartet since May. Still, curiosity compels us to listen to the album with an ear to discover what differences the new format makes in the dynamics of one of New Orleans' most admired and respected jazz groups.

As would be expected, the most noticeable change is the amount of space gained by the individual musicians. The openness is immediately evident from the first measures of Masakowski's "Big Shot," which, somewhat ironically, is a tune the guitarist wrote for Torkanowski before the pianist's departure from the band. The title cut also introduces an album that, arguably, speaks of New Orleans more than any of the ensemble's three previous releases.

"I realize the name Astral Project probably doesn't connote New Orleans that much," says the composer, "but to me that's our strong point."

"In a way, the album is a return to the roots," adds Singleton. "We really kind of got into some street beat grooves on this recording but we still go out to the cosmic level."

This return is certainly revealed on tunes like Dagradi's sidewalk steppin' blues "Spherical" and Masakowki's "Crescent City Strut." It's also deliberately hailed in the album's title and cover art. As locals know, Big Shot enjoys numerous associations with this city.

The tune "Big Shot" offers another illustration of Astral Project's purposeful response to their hometown. While these guys have built a reputation on the intuitiveness of their musical interactions, on this song and often throughout the performance they use that gift to further delve into ensemble, or counterpoint, playing that is the historic core of New Orleans classic jazz. At the end of the tune, the four melodically voiced instruments weave around and within each other creating an intricate tapestry. "It's a canon in a jazz sense," explains Masakowski, comparing it to a round à la "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

The band recorded the album much as if it were a live gig. Vidacovich, who for previous sessions played behind a baffle, joined Dagradi and Masakowski in the studio's main room. It was a move that put his drums further to the front of the music. His cymbals come smashing through as they accent Singleton's eastern-toned "Magic Lantern" and become raucous and rockish on the bassist's aptly named "Pandemonium." Again, the roots of Crescent City jazz are credited in part for this particular sound.

Down Beat

One could excuse the members of Astral Project if they get a little weepy and sentimental at their annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival gig. After all, this was there they debuted as a band in 1978, and every year since, without fail, they have improvised before increasingly larger and more receptive crowds at their hometown's musical blowout.

But they don't get sentimental. They just play. And at their 2002 JazzFest show in April, saxophonist Tony Dagradi, guitarist Steve Masakowski, bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich played with jubilant intensity. This proved to be a significant show: it was their first appearance at the fest as a quartet. Gone was pianist David Torkanowsky, whose relationship with the band came to an end last May. Since Torkanowsky's departure, the band has recorded a new album, Big Shot (released on their own label and available on, which layers sometimes infectious, sometimes gorgeous melodies above vicious, New Orleans-rooted beats. Without piano in the mix, the groove flows deep on Big Shot, and this runs over in the group's live show.

Down Beat caught up with the band in their trailer backstage at the Jazz Tent after their spirited show.

What's the anticipation like before playing this gig?

SINGLETON: I used to get nervous. But now it's just another hit.
DAGRADI: It felt like being at home today, playing with your friends.
SINGLETON: I was here yesterday, and I was hanging out all day today. Everywhere I walk I run into people for whom I've been playing for 25 years. It really is familiar and comfortable.
MASAKOWSKI: Kind of like playing for family, but the family keeps growing.

Obviously, this is a special gig.

MASAKOWSKI: Every gig is special. But you know, this is just a great time of year to be in New Orleans, the food, the people. It's a great hang. It's special for us. We can drive to the gig.

Do you feel a renewed intensity to your playing?

MASAKOWSKI: Sure. We feel a boost after changing our format after 24 years. We've now been a quartet for almost a year, since last May. We?ve done a couple of tours, and we definitely feel more space, we?re taking more risks.

The band now sounds more rhythmic.

MASAKOWSKI: There's more space for each one of us to play in, so we take advantage of it. Especially for me, it frees me up, but there's also a lot more responsibility, as I have to fill things in. I like that, because sometimes combining a piano player with a guitarist can be like oil and water. I've been playing guitar trio a lot, so this feels really natural when it comes to soloing, or when we solo together.
SINGLETON: Johnny's such an orchestrator. Sometimes it's fun to play even less and watch him or Steve fill in than do more. It an go either way.
MASAKOWSKI: We try every time we play to reinvent what we do. We play a lot of the tunes that are on the record, but when we play live we always inject something different. We're constantly writing new tunes. We need to keep it fresh for ourselves. Every night, we strive to outdo what we did the night before.

The songs in your set today almost all came from the new album. You're obviously excited about the material that you put together for Big Shot.

SINGLETON: We toured extensively before we made this disc. We went to Europe for 10 days, we did the Midwest for 10 days. The tunes had been around for more than a year before they were recorded.
MASAKOWSKI: This is a special thing about this album, at least for me. Astral Project has always been considered a New Orleans band. This is our first record that takes advantage of the New Orleans sound, of that music that's around us in this city. It's really a New Orleans record. That's what we've always been about. And this album really demonstrates that. For instance, a song like "Big Shot" has that parade feel.

And the songs have passion and intensity. It came across really well on the ballad you played, "Hymn."

SINGLETON: It's easier right now. We're just cooperative, the four of us.
MASAKOWSKI: We're at the point now where we don't have to prove anything. We can just relax and enjoy playing with each other. That's what music is supposed to be about.


Jazz At It's Very Best
Once in a bar on Newbury Street in Boston, I noticed a chalkboard aphorism I've never forgotten, a kind of saloon koan: "Never give up on a man," it said, "until he's failed at something he loves." Why am I so fond of this barroom instruction? Because it insists that real maturity frequently requires dealing with significant loss. And Astral Project's new CD, Big Shot -- the fourth from the Crescent City's home-team modern-jazz band -- is a work of unexpected maturity. Wholly realized and vibrantly executed, Big Shot is a big-deal kind of jazz statement -- with things to say, the means to say them, and sufficiently practiced chops to be able to pull it all off with an undeniably eloquent consistency. As bassist James Singleton aptly observes in the liner notes, Big Shot feels like "a summation."

Chalk it up to the loss of keyboardist extraordinaire David Torkanowsky? Or, more likely -- as the CD's liner notes suggest -- to the events of Sept. 11. Or, maybe, just to the fact that these four extremely talented fellows have individually achieved a level of maturity and have aged sufficiently as a cooperative ensemble (the band celebrates its 25th anniversary next year). In any case, what Astral Project has laid down here is modern jazz at its very best, intuitively played, lyrically composed, emotionally moving, the kind of work only a group of genuinely like-minded souls with considerable experience playing together can even hope to pull off.

The first half of Big Shot is marked by guitarist Steve Masakowski's pair of boiling compositions, "Vigil (for Sept. 11)" and "Vengeance," written on a Midwestern tour while the band waited for word of Masakowski's sister, brother-in-law and their child, all of whom were visiting the World Trade Center on that fateful day. The second half proceeds suspended on a series of beautifully evocative compositions by saxophonist and Astral Project founder Tony Dagradi, with two pieces in particular -- "Heart of the Matter" and "Hymn" -- achieving remarkably sustained climaxes of finely rendered tenderness and emotional clarity. Cantilevered on these bearing walls are several other brilliant pieces of jazz writing that also offer exemplary solo and ensemble playing throughout that is unmistakably intimate and maturely reflective.