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Bayou Jazz From Higher Ground

VCU's jazz studies chair brings his New Orleans idols, Astral Project, to town.

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Astral Project's concert at VCU's Singleton Center Nov. 8 has been a long time coming. Jazz studies director Antonio Garcia has tried to bring the group to Richmond for the past three years. And his motivation stretched back even further, to his native New Orleans, the band's home base.

"I first saw them in 1978, when I was a sophomore in college," Garcia says. He's seen them many more times in the past 28 years. "They're one of the only jazz groups in New Orleans that I'll eagerly shell out bucks to go hear."

Listening to one of the group's recordings at his near West End home, Garcia catalogs the quartet's virtues with the first-name enthusiasm of an avid fan:

"Johnny [Vidacovich] is one of he most versatile and flexible drummers, versed in New Orleans street beats as well as bebop and the avant-garde. He's gifted, loose-limbed and fun to watch. Steve [Masakowski] gets a wealth of sounds out of his custom seven-string guitars, but there is nothing artificial about his playing; it's always a natural part of the voice. James [Singleton] exclusively plays upright, but he is faster and funkier than most electric bassists. And Tony [Dagradi] is a very expressive, highly unpredictable post-Coltrane saxophonist."

The group's 1998 "Elevado," playing on Garcia's stereo, provides proof. Astral Project has an elastic interplay that comes from long collaboration, flowing lyricism spiced with enough textural edges and rhythmic snap to reward close attention.

That the music is structurally sophisticated is no surprise, given the band's academic credentials. Dagradi and Vidacovich teach jazz studies at Loyola, and Masakowski holds a parallel position at the University of New Orleans. "James [Singleton] is the least involved in education," Dagradi says, "except for all of [the band's] clinics and workshops."

Speaking by phone from his home, perched on fortuitously high ground near the infamous 17th Street Canal, Dagradi recalls his arrival in New Orleans.

"I left school in Boston and was touring with [Philadelphia funk band] Archie Bell and the Drells," he says. "Now, I've been down a lot of musical paths, but that one was a detour, and I was looking for someplace to live."

His wife suggested New Orleans, but Dagradi was hesitant. "I wasn't into traditional music," he says, "but there were so many great, great musicians here, and the longer I stayed, the better it became."

He arrived in the Crescent City during its late-'70s golden age. Original giants such as pianist Professor Longhair were still active, and young area players — Bobbie McFerrin, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Wynton and Branford Marsalis — were just coming up.

"Wynton was still in high school — he was just 15 years old when I first saw him play," Dagradi says. "There were so many good trumpet players, I thought this place must grow them like mushrooms."

Dagradi sat in with them all, assembling the Astral Project to realize his own vision. The name reflects his spiritual quest. "I'm always interested in mystical personal experiences and the metaphysical aspect of things," he says. "The name comes from the 'astral plane,' a higher level of existence. That's where I want to take the beauty of music -- higher and higher."

Katrina's devastation brought everything down to earth. After being evacuated to different places, the band came back together for a tour. "It was a very emotional tour; it seemed like half the audience was from New Orleans," Dagradi says. "It was wonderful to have something to do, a sense of normalcy.

Although their homes survived, much of the city is still dark, and bassist Singleton has relocated to Los Angeles, although he commutes back for gigs and a monthly radio show. "Each of us is working on many projects," Dagradi says. "It's not like we play every night."

When a cancellation opened a hole in their schedule, Garcia lost no time in arranging their VCU appearance. "It's a 'change your life' opportunity for the students to meet with players like this, and it's also great for the faculty," Garcia says. "That's the reason we have guest artists. It fires everybody up."

For Garcia, it's the perfect combination of the personal and professional, fusing the best of his two hometowns. S

The Astral Project plays VCU's Singleton Center on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m. Admission is $5. Call 828-6776 for tickets.

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