New Orleans Big Bass Man: An Interview with James Singelton of the Astral Project
By Brian L. Knight
The jazz quintet Astral Project has been a fixture on the New Orleans jazz scene for the last twenty years. In a city that breeds R&B, funk, Dixieland, and traditional jazz, the hard bop sounds of the Astral Project are a refreshing presence on the scene. Consisting of guitarist Steve Masakowski, drummer Johnny Vidacovich, saxophonist Tony Dagradi, pianist Dave Torkanowsky and bassist James Singelton, Astral Project has recorded two amazing albums for Compass Records, Elevado and VoodooBop. The latter album was named Album of the Year at the 13th annual Big Easy Awards while the band received the honors of Best Modern Jazz Artist. Thank the lord, the music of Astral Project is not simply delegated to New Orleans as the band brings their truly eclectic jazz out on the road. But, by in far, Astral Projects favorite place & time to play is in the Jazz Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival fairgrounds. This past festival, this author had an opportunity to see the Astral Project and in terms of bringing a crowd to a state of frenzied excitement, Astral Project won hands down as the most exciting act of the day. The Vermont Review spoke to bassist James Singelton via the email waves and through the conversation we discovered the secret of staying together for 22 years, some of Singeletons influences and the nuances of New Orleans life.
Vermont Review: How long have you called New Orleans home?
James Singelton: I've lived in N.O. for 23 years. I quit school to move here for a road gig with Gatemouth Brown. It was quickly apparent to me that this was an incredible music community. the endless cross-pollination of styles really suits me well. (along with the transcendence of style-but that's anotha thing)
VR: Was there a bass player who really influenced you to play?
JS: I came to the bass rather late by today's standards. my early preferences were piano, trumpet, and guitar. by the time I joined my first band the other kids had guitars, Id always loved the low bass tones, saw Entwistle on the tube, it just seemed natural. (Ive since met many brass players who switched to bass) my mom is a good musician, and she said "if you're gonna play bass get a Real bass" the most interesting players were all listening to jazz (though gigging in rock bands) so I switched to upright. Ive checked out numerous master bass players (Paul Chambers, Cachao, Pops Foster, George Porter, Jaco, Bootsy, etc.) but always had a much greater interest in other instrumentalists. (Herbie, Wayne, Coltrane, Freddie, Armstrong, Hodges, Duke, Monk, Jarrett, Brahms, Stravinsky, Bartok, the Frenchies Debussy, Fauré Ravel, Mahler, Bach, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Aretha, Beatles, Steely Dan, Coasters, Jobim, Tonhinho, Ivan Lins, Ad Infinitum) having said this I must add that my main influences are the people I play with members of my immediate crew form the core of my influences. Other New Orleans cats have had a profound effect on me - George French, Ernie Elly, Ellis, Red Tyler, James Black, Zig, Herlin, Michael Pellera, Larry Sieberth, Johnny Adams...
VR: 1978, New Orleans. What were you doing?
JS: In 78 I was touring with Gate and trying to start free-lancing in town. The oil boom was still rollin' and it was a 24-hour live-gig situation. Money just flyin'. I remember on more than one occasion finding a c-note on the barroom floor after the gig. Of course that all ended with OPEC, and a lot of us ended up in hotel gigs, road gigs, or worse. But we always returned to play Astral Project gigs. The die had been cast. When Tony started the band we were all in our 20's so we were pretty crazy. We would do insane libations and run without sleep for days. Waking reality became dreamlike on numerous occasions. To me it's highly amusing that our current compositions capture that spirit more precisely than our earlier stuff. The people in those dives we used to play were ready (if not desperate) for some kind of transformative profound change. The freedom that we practiced was encouraged and rewarded. With today's jam-band crowd I see an echo of that level of "adult curiosity" of course the jazz crowd has always been around, but it's really encouraging to see greater numbers of younger people hungry for our brand of composing in the groove. they like the risks and they like to see some sweat.
VR: You put on fantastic at the Jazz Tent at the 2000 Fest. Did it feel as good to you as it did to the audience?
JS: The tent is kind of an annual ritual and it felt good to put some of the new stuff on the line. New stuff and new takes on the older stuff, old friends and new ones too.
VR: Does the name of the band reflect the direction of your music?
JS: The name implies a transcendence from the physical plane. This definitely reflects the direction of the music. When perception of time diminishes the astral plane is perhaps within reach.
VR: You spend so much time together on-stage. Do spend time together off the stage?
JS: On the road we spend time together. In town we socialize infrequently.It's mainly just full schedules all around. The road has many functions. The renewal of travel, the experimentation that repeat performances engender, jokin' around (and mercilessly crackin' on whoever ain't around) and spreading the music.
VR: How has the band developed musically over the years? Personally?
JS: I think the vision has broadened with the introduction of everyone's tunes. With 5 composers it's easier to come up with a CD that stands up to repeat listenings. We simply cull all but the strongest. The depth has also increased. In 20 years we have watched each other go through some crooked paths. The child-like spirit of adventure is thankfully still there, but it's been sharpened by experience.
VR: You spent much of the 1980s playing with Bobby McFerrin. Do you stay in contact with him these days?
JS: We played with bobby for less than 2 years. He is strongest in a long line of collaborators (Nat Adderly, the Wild Magnolias, Johnny Adams, Clyde Kerr, Howard Levy...) we did a short tour with him last summer and hope for more frequent reunions in the future.
VR: The Tony Dagradi Trios Live at the Columns is 3/5s Astral Project. How does the music of that album differ from the music of Astral Project? Is a new direction or a continuation of the Astral Project?
JS: The trio has a life of it's own, but some of the trio action is a crucial part of Astral Project.
VR: What other side projects have you been involved with recently?
JS: My own band is 3NOW4. It features pedal-steel guitar genius Dave Easley, Tim green on tenor sax, Vidacovich whenever I can get him, and other drummers as needed. some of my more interesting free-lancing includes a classical Indian fusion with Tim Green again, and the band Naked on the Floor.
VR: Ten years ago, you were considered the new wave of New Orleans Jazz music. Although now considered veterans, you still push the envelope. How do keep your creative vibrancy?
JS:Composers/improvisers typically make a life out of learning about themselves and the work that surrounds them.
VR: By now, you and drummer John Vidacovich must be able to speak without opening your mouths. Would you agree?
JS: Johnny is a master musician. he's an instant orchestrator and a great musical conversationalist.
VR: I read that "The music of The Astral Project reflects the chronology of Jazz itself". When listening to Elevado and Voodoo Bop, there is a sense of covering the breadth of jazz music. Does this diversity arise from the existing musical diversity of New Orleans?
JS: Astral Project is an on-going dialogue with a lot of Louisiana music and other music from around the world.
VR: VoodooBop was recorded at Kingsway Studios, a historic French Quarter mansion. How does the building lend to the recording ambience?
JS: Kingsway was fun. a new refreshing acoustic environment is always a ball. Coincidentally the building used to be the home of Germain Wells, an elegant and wild New Orleans lady that we used to play for back in the day. Johnny and I saw some old pictures of her that brought back images of this dive she owned. We played there in the early 80's and it was the sight of some true-life adventures. I remember one night the better part of Woody Hermans Orchestra and Buddy Richs band sitting in all at once.
VR: Any plans for a next album?
JS: The new disc is coming in early 2001. We are really taking our time playing with the latest pieces on the road.
VR: I am going to name some names of musicians. I would love to hear what you think of them. Charles Mingus?
JS: Mingus was an American treasure. great bassist, composer , and band leader. His prose is also hilarious.
VR: Jaco Pastorius?
JS: Jaco was a great composer, great bandleader, and a profoundly influential innovator on his instrument. Absolute killer record producer also.
VR: George Porter Jr.
JS: George is the living, breathing ,still-evolving grandfather of funk. He can put the beat anywhere, make almost anyone sound good, and always brings an open heart to the music. Sort of a John Vidacovich of the bass.
VR: Chris Wood (of Medeski, Martin & Wood)
JS: Chris Wood earned my respect one night when I saw him solo for nearly 10 minutes with no tonality. It was a wake-up call and I admire him for it.
VR: Ron Carter
JS: Ron carter is one of the all-time great accompanists in music. He is extremely creative at it. Great notes, rhythm, and sound.
VR: Who are some New Orleans musicians that I need to hear?
JS: Charlie Miller, Leroy Jones on trumpet. Mark Diflorio on drums Scott bourgeois on alto, Iris May Tango, Kevin O'day
VR: You are veritable demi-gods within the Crescent City. What happens when you take the Astral project on the road? Like most New Orleans bands on the road, do the Jazz Fest veterans must come out to pay homage?
JS: Astral Project is usually well received. We often encounter jazz-fest regulars on the road and it's always a joy.
VR: Do you ever go to the Fairgrounds when you are not playing? What has been some memorable acts that you have seen at the fairgrounds?
JS: Hermeto, George French, Native American stage.
VR: What is your favorite food at the fairgrounds?
JS: Sweet potato pone, couchon du lait
VR: Any advice to a New Englander who wants to call New Orleans home?
JS: New Orleans features a small but very vibrant music scene, great and varied food traditions, and a beautiful sense of community. New Englanders should prepare to be really roasted in the summer (late may-mid October) and should leave any faint illusions of political efficacy at home.
VR: What do you do when you are not playing music?
JS: Im an avid reader of fiction and poetry, a student of French, a runner, a sailor, a dancer, a traveler, and a cook.
VR: Anything else that we would like to know?
JS: New Orleans bands are famous for taking our grooves to other places. Some people know that different settings can fire up the music in different ways. As people begin to dance they share even more the strength of the passages.
You can find out more about Astral Project at http://www.astralproject.com.