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The Astral Project plays contemporary jazz — firmly rooted in the Bebop tradition, but largely informed by music of their home city of New Orleans. The band has been playing together since 1978, and fortunately for Central Arkansas jazz fans, they have been making regular tour stops in Little Rock for past several years. This week's show found the band venturing beyond their usual gig at the Afterthought for the upscale Windsong Performing Arts Center.
Steve Masakowski (guitar) and Tony Dagradi (saxophones) are masters of their instruments. Dagradi's eastern-influenced lyrical melodies and Masakowski's unique seven-string guitar technique provide most of the band's melodic content. But by far the most unique thing about the Astral Project — and what makes them so unmistakably New Orleans — is the rhythm section of James Singleton and John Vidacovich.
Singleton attacks the upright bass with a rare fury and a floor full of distortion, octave and loop pedals, and takes his instrument beyond the edges of mere supporting rhythm cast. Vidacovich is THE master New Orleans drummer and manages to pepper the relatively traditional jazz setting of the Astral Project with street beats and second line grooves. I'm certain he is one of the funkiest men alive.
The band debuted several new songs, referring to charts strewn across the floor. Predictably, much of the new material deals with post-Katrina life in New Orleans, with titles like “Dyke Finger” and “Entropy.” It doesn't take too much imagination to guess what they're getting at with the new songs.
New Orleans lives in the music of the Astral Project — from the nods to the Meters (“Sidewalk Strut”) to the Latin, Caribbean, and second-line beats, which show up in much of their music.
The crowd was small but enthusiastic, and included New Orleans expatriate and Ellis Marsalis sideman Bill Huntington, who relocated to Hot Springs after Katrina.
Windsong is a fantastic performance space. I'd love to see the space utilized more — I can specifically think of several promising touring acts who used to frequent Juanita's but who haven't come back since it became largely a modern rock club.
However, I've never understood “no drinks” policies in music venues — Windsong has a cash bar, but drinks can't be taken in to the auditorium. This policy would certainly hinder an expansion into pop/rock bookings. In any case, here's hoping for more shows like the Astral Project at the Windsong soon.
— Jason Weinheimer