Astral Project blows its blues away

Music IndustryNew OrleansBilly StrayhornHurricane Katrina (2005)Green Mill (club)

The last time that the musicians of Astral Project -- New Orleans' greatest contemporary jazz band -- performed together, Hurricane Katrina hadn't yet smashed against the Gulf Coast.

So, the band's return to the stage over the weekend, at the Green Mill Jazz Club, carried tremendous emotional weight. For the first time since they and their families had been scattered across the country, the musicians of Astral Project came together again, to make music for an audience eager to hear them.

Not surprisingly, their first set Friday night sounded more like a catharsis than a concert, the band playing harder, faster and with more ferocity than ever. Exulting in the muscularity of its work, attacking beats and offbeats with extraordinary force and precision, Astral Project seemed to be raising its fist against the vicissitudes of Katrina.

"This is the best thing that's happened to me in about three weeks," the band's volatile drummer, Johnny Vidacovich, told the crowd, which roared its approval.

"We're kind of water-logged right now," he added, though whenever the band played, it sounded as crisp and tautly drawn as the skins on Vidacovich's drums.

Never an ensemble to understate its message, Astral Project on this occasion played on a particularly grand scale, yet without bombast. There's so much musical content in its repertoire and expressive control in its technique, in other words, that even its large-scale statements sounded well calibrated for the room and the mood.

From the opening number, "Big Shot," Astral Project unleashed its signature sound, a lean, tough, rhythmically unyielding approach to jazz improvisation. In many instances, saxophonist Tony Dagradi and guitarist Steve Masakowski lit up explosive unison lines, while bassist James Singleton and drummer Vidacovich aggressively pressed rhythms and tempos forward.

Judging by the huge tone and soaring lines that Dagradi produced in "Delicately," the band might want to consider changing the name of the tune to "Explosively." For here again, Astral Project recast its standard repertoire to fit the tenor of its post-Katrina identity.

Perhaps no moment more eloquently addressed what these musicians must be feeling than Dagradi's searing solo on Billy Strayhorn's ballad "Blood Count." Gently caressing its sinuous phrases at one moment, blowing full throttle the next, Dagradi poured as much heart and pain into this tune as it possibly could hold. His throaty low notes and wide-open vibrato and otherwise nostalgic view of this music said a great deal about what has been lost in the great city of New Orleans.

Then again, the inarguable fact that Astral Project still swings -- though its personnel may never again call Louisiana home -- suggests that musical New Orleans endures, at least in fleeting performances such as this.

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hreich@tribune.com

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