Tony Dagardi has been a fixture in the NOLA scene for decades. The sax-man is well known for his part in Astral Project, but he also has influenced many up and comers through his work at Loyola. NoDef's partners, Music at the Mint, spent some time talking with him and even recorded a couple tracks.
Mint: Where are you from?
Tony: I’m originally from the Northeast. I was born in Queens, NY and grew up, most of my life, in Summit, NJ which is about 35 miles directly west from Manhattan.
M: What brought you to playing music? Was there music in the house? Did your parents play?
T: You know, there wasn’t (laughs). My parents liked music and they were great dancers. Both my parents were really into Big Bands from the 40’s. That was their heyday. But no one played anything. I was the first one to kind of stumble onto music and that was by chance more than anything.
We had a good music program in my elementary school, in the school system where I was. I think when you’re 8 or 9 in third grade they just took you into a room and said “do you want to play any of these instruments?” and I said “Yeah. I’ll take a saxophone”. Not knowing anything. I had a saxophone. I owned a saxophone for a couple years and I was much more interested in baseball. But at a certain point, I think I happened to hear a tenor saxophone solo somewhere and it just galvanized my attention. I said “what is that? I have an alto saxophone but I really want a tenor saxophone now”.
M: Was that in third grade?
T: Oh no, that was a couple years later. I was maybe 13. That’s still pretty young. Now that I’ve been working and teaching a lot, 13 and 14 years old seems to be a very important age for people to get into music. They made a big decision at 14. Must be something to do with puberty and everything else.
M: Also probably an awareness of music and what it does for people.
T: I think so. Yeah, you know, you get into pop music. You get into all kinds of things The Beatles were just coming out. All kinds of things were going on at that time.
M: Who was an early mentor for you?
T: Ah! I had a really good band director. His name was Joe Loretti. He was with me from elementary school all the way through high school. He was a very helpful person.
I had a couple of really good teachers too. On saxophone I had, they called him Joe D, his name was D’Addario. He was sort of a commercial saxophonist. Multi reed guy. He played really good flute, really good saxophone, really good clarinet. He was my first very important teacher.
He hooked me up with my first very important piano teacher whose name was T Aless. I think his full name was Allesandria. He had played with Charlie Parker and Woody Herman. He was in New York. I would go into New York every Saturday and take piano. My intent on piano was really to learn orchestration and arranging. But he made me learn how to play piano.
M: That was when you were in high school?
T: Yeah. Probably 15, 16, 17.
M: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
T: Well, as soon as I focused on the saxophone I was very attuned to jazz. That’s really what I wanted to play. Of course, I grew up in the 60’s so there was all kinds of rock n roll to listen to. That was fun but I was always very pointed and interested in jazz. In high school I was listening to, well, a lot of people. I bought my first Coltrane records, my first Cannonball record, first records of Stan Getz.
I used to go to The Village Vanguard when I was in high school. By the time I got my driver’s license I would talk my parents into letting me drive in to New York. That was a big thing. The drinking age in New York was lower too. You could drink when you were 17 or 18 in New York, whereas Jersey was 21 (laughs).
M: Who did you see at The Vanguard when you were going?
T: Man, I saw so many great people. I saw The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band a lot. I was really into big bands. That seemed to be so exciting to have all those people onstage. That attracted me a lot.
I got to see Roland Kirk at The Vanguard. I saw Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. A whole bunch of people. Later on I saw people like Archie Shepp and Dexter Gordon. Just so many people to see.
Being that close to New York I got to see Sonny Rollins a lot. I saw Sonny Rollins give this fantastic performance at maybe Town Hall. It’s hard to remember now, but it was Sonny Rollins with the String Bass Choir of New York. It was every bass player you could think of. About 12 of them lined up. They had a few arrangements and Sonny would just blow over the top. It was really remarkable.
M: I think I met Archie Shepp once. Did he teach at The New School for jazz?
T: Possibly. He is, I think, still on the faculty at Amherst. University of Mass in Amherst. We didn’t talk about this yet, but when I was going to school in Boston I would drive to Amherst with a friend and we would go sit in on Archie’s improv class and also his jazz history class which was very edifying.
M: When did you start writing songs and arranging?
T: That was also in high school. It was funny, as I mentioned I was very interested in big bands and so, when you’re learning jazz one of the first things you want to do is study other people’s playing. Along with that comes transcribing their actual solos. I did that a little bit but what I also started doing was transcribing entire big bands. That’s very difficult. You know, trying to hear all of the notes that 15 people are playing at one time. If you know harmony and you know the concept behind orchestration you can kind of pick things out much easier. But I was still learning that stuff and sometimes I would make pretty good guesses and pretty good transcriptions and sometimes I would just miss because I just couldn’t figure out how they were making those sounds. And still a good arranger can be very mysterious.
M: When you write do you hear the melody line or do you hear the whole harmonic content of the piece?
T: It’s different each time, I think. Sometimes it starts with just a two or three or four note melody and you go “wow, I like that” and you develop the whole thing from there. Sometimes I like to write the melody first without any preconception of what the harmony is. That leaves a lot of things open and then I’ll sit down with a melody that I like and try all kinds of reharmonizations. It’s very exciting to do that. You can play a melody a million different ways harmonically and you have to decide which is the single best one.
Other times it might not necessarily be a whole harmonic progression but a chord moving to another chord and you go “wow, I really like that”. So you start with that very small little thing and a whole composition can grow from that. I did one new piece called “Shimmer” and I had a little 2 chord thing like that. I said “I really like that. I want to write a tune that has that in it”. Basically the whole tune is just to get to this one little section.
M: It’s kind of like writing a book.
T: Yeah, you know the ending but how do we get there?
M: Do you make records at home or in studios?
T: Both. In the last 15 years I’ve been developing my home studio. In this day and age having a computer driven studio is so accessible to almost anyone. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. I’ve got a really good pre amp, a really good mic. The record that we’re going to premiere at The M performance January 22, all of the saxophone parts were recorded in my house. Then I recorded the drums separately and added them all together in the mix and mastered them together.
I’ve actually been doing a lot of recording in my house for other people. I have few people that send me either rhythm tracks or partially completed projects and they ask me to add either a solo sax part, or sometimes a sax section or sometimes an entire brass section. I’ll write the whole brass section. I’ll record the sax section at my house then I’ll go somewhere else to do the trumpets and trombones.
M: Are you using Pro Tools at home?
T: I use Digital Performer. I’ve been doing that for so long. I really like the sequencing capabilities and the recording is the same as just about anything.
There are so many more possibilities and ways to look at stuff with the sequencing capabilities of Digital Performer. You can do it all in Pro Tools, and Pro Tools is more like the standard for studio work.
M: Digital Performer is a better writing tool.
T: I agree.
M: Digital Performer started out as a MIDI sequencer.
T: Exactly. It wasn’t a recording thing at first.
M: It was around for a good 10 years before they added audio.
T: Oh yeah. Absolutely and I had that program first.
M: Do you tour?
T: I used to tour a lot and lately not so much. I have kind of lost interest in spending a lot of hours in a van. I don’t even like planes anymore. I guess what I don’t like is performing in bars. That’s pretty much what the jazz venues are. I love performing in beautiful spaces, acoustic spaces. I’ve been focusing on my contacts in colleges. The last couple things that Astral Project did when we went out was college concerts. We played some beautiful acoustic rooms and it was just very enjoyable.
You know, playing in a bar where people are talking and drinking, it’s the world of jazz, but I guess I just don’t need to do that.
M: Let’s talk about Astral Project. They have been around for, what, 30 years now?
T: More. Our first gig was in 1978. We’ve played at the Jazz Festival every year since 1978. I put that band together when I first got to New Orleans. I wanted a band where I could bring music. I could work on the music that I wanted to play and have that be a very kind of sacred place where I wasn’t performing for anybody else. The only thing I was concerned about was making the music that I wanted to make. It has been a great place for that.
M: Do you guys still write new stuff too?
T: Yeah! Everybody’s always writing. We don’t rehearse very much. A lot of times, even if we have new material, it really gets together on the bandstand. You can only do so much in a rehearsal anyway. The bandstand is where things evolve and take shape.
M: How many shows would Astral Project typically play in a year now?
T: Whew, not too many. They’re very few. In our busiest years we were probably working 150 gigs a year and traveling all over the place to Europe and back, the Middle East and everywhere.
M: What are some of your favorite places that you have played?
T: Paris, of course. I love playing in Paris just because it’s Paris. One of my favorite festivals in Europe is The North Sea Jazz Festival. I’ve always had a great experience playing there. I played there with Professor Longhair way back in the day. I played there with Carla Bley a couple times. I played there with Astral Project and I think also with Gatemouth Brown as well.
It’s just beautiful. Back in the day it was very expensive for Europeans to go there. Now the New Orleans festival is kind of in that same category where it costs you an arm and a leg to just walk in the place. But, there was so much music. I used to really look forward to that one.
M: What was it like playing with Longhair?
T: (laughs) It was an experience. Before I got to New Orleans in 1977 I had been a lot of funk gigs in Boston. So I kind of had a handle on that much of it but Professor Longhair, of course, was totally unique. It was very colorful.
I think one of the things about Fess that I remember most, first of all, just the gigs at Tipitina’s. That was when Tipitina’s was just starting out. It just opened up and Tipitina was one of Fess’ tunes. We would play there often to just full houses. It was before Tipitina’s had opened up the top so it was just a low ceiling box. A low ceiling sweat box. I remember playing long sets and be dripping afterwards and Fess, he would just get through it. He would play and play and play.
M: What was the music scene like in Boston in the 70’s?
T: Boston is a great city for music and it’s a very intellectual city because of all the universities there. I met so many great, great musicians that are important to me today and throughout my career so I learned a lot there. But, it was not a good place to work because there were so many students.
In 1977 everybody worked for the door. Now they’re doing that here in New Orleans. When I first got to New Orleans everybody worked for union wages. I said, “Wow, that’s great! You mean you know what you’re going to get paid when you come to the gig”? You had to file a contract but you always knew at the very minimum you were making union scale. In Boston I would do a great jazz gig and be presenting all the music that I wrote and I’d walk away with $1.50 (laughs).
M: A lot of people know you as a player, but you’re also an educator. You’ve been teaching at Loyola for quite a while now.
T: Yeah, I’m about to receive an award for 25 years (laughs). I don’t know where those years went.
M: It’s very easy to see how you help the students because they play here and we know that you get a lot out of their talent. How does it help your playing and writing?
T: I think any good teacher will tell you that he learns a lot from his students. Some of the students that come to me are very sharp. I immediately see stuff that they have together that I can learn from. I’ve talked to some people years later and they tell me things that I said to them that really influenced them. I thought “Oh man, I gotta be careful what I say”. But apparently I’ve had a good influence on a few people anyway.
M: You were talking about Bobby McFerrin before we got started. When did you meet him? Was he living here?
T: Yeah, Bobby lived in New Orleans for about a year in 1979. Something like that. He had been playing piano with, I think, The Ice Follies. He was in the band behind the skaters and stuff. They fired him (laughs). He ended up in New Orleans and I remember Astral Project was doing a gig at The Absinthe Bar on Bourbon Street. The gig didn’t start until 11 or 12 at night. At one point this fella comes up to me and asks to sit in. We always let people sit in and I asked him what his name was and I introduced him. He started singing and I thought “this guy’s really good”. I immediately invited him to be on the gig. So he worked with us at The Absinthe Bar for about a year. That was about three or four nights a week I think.
There was another night that we did uptown at Tyler’s. So we worked together pretty intensely for a year. We did a few little demo recordings here and there and just had a really good time. Bobby was doing everything that he does now. He was doing that back then. He told me that was the first gig that he was ever just a singer on. He says he learned a lot from us. I say “Maybe. Maybe not”.
His latest record, he looked at some spirituals and different traditional jubilee spiritual kind of things. Apparently he was influenced by his father who was the first black opera singer with The Met in New York. His dad was also the voice of Sidney Portier in “Porgie and Bess” the movie.
If you go on Youtube right now they have posted a record that Robert McFerrin Sr. did of some spirituals. They are scary. It’s so good. You will not believe how heavy that is. Bobby told me that when he was learning those spirituals, when his dad was larning those spirituals, he was being coached by an African American composer whose mother was a slave, who told him how the stuff was supposed to be sung. Bobby was just a little kid sitting there as his father was learning this stuff. A deep, deep connection. A really deep connection.
M: That’s going back to the late 40’s or the 50’s?
T: Probably the 50’s. Bobby’s memories of it would have to be the 50’s. Probably that recording that we’re speaking of is 50’s. So the composer that was helping Bobby’s father, his mother was a slave so that’s like 100 years right there, at least.
M: Where was Tyler’s located?
T: Tyler’s was up on Magazine Street. If you find Laredo Printing, Tyler’s was in that big building directly across. Fred Laredo was the owner. He had the print shop and he had Tyler’s across the street. Tyler’s was there for a long time and it was a great place. That was the place uptown to hear music. All kinds of people played there, Randy Brecker, Eddie Harris, Dave Liebman, Nat Adderly. All kinds of people. Astral Project had sort of a steady night there. James Rivers had maybe a couple nights there. I think Ellis Marsalis and Steve Masakowski had a duo there one night. It was a great place.
M: I’ve heard that you have a spiritual vision and philosophy. Astral Project and Gemini Rising sound astrological. What’s the connection between that and your music?
T: It’s interesting because the first sort of awakening I had about the impact of music and metaphysical things, spirituality and everything, was through listening to Coltrane and all the things that he explored. Also Duke Ellington because he did The Sacred Music concerts. I got to see one of Ellington’s Sacred Music Concerts at Carnegie Hall when I was in high school.
I never got to see Coltrane but his music was very important to me both musically and spiritually because it caused me to think about music as a source of upliftment. That led me to look at other things. Coltrane was looking at a lot of different spiritual traditions. He has all the different titles, “A Love Supreme”, “Ohm”, “Meditation”, “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”, “Dear Lord”. So a lot of his titles and compositions were about his spiritual search. He was a real seeker. He was investigating different spiritual traditions. That made me think that that was something I had to do as well. I kind of looked and followed some things. Now, I don’t want to talk about it too much, I definitely practice a kind of meditation that I work on daily.
M: How do you feel living in New Orleans affects your art?
T: Johnny Vidacovich says “The music is so funky here because we’re below sea level”. That may have something to do with it. One thing that was very exciting for me when I came to New Orleans, first of all, I didn’t know anybody here and I didn’t know what to expect. My conception of what New Orleans was was basically limited to Traditional Jazz, Dixieland Jazz. That’s what was here. But, as soon as I started meeting people I realized that the tradition is very, very deep here. I really enjoyed playing with all the people that I met. One thing that made a big impact on me was the fact that people here play all kinds of music. You might see someone on a traditional gig and a couple nights later you might see them on a modern jazz gig or a funk gig. People are very versatile and I think that’s because everything is connected here. The community is connected to the music. You see the connections of funk and rhythm and blues, jazz and more modern forms of jazz. It’s all very raw and exposed here.
M: Who are you listening to these days?
T: I think that the level of artistry and technique, in jazz especially, is very high right now. There are sooo many good young players coming up. One person that I really like is Chris Potter. I think he’s really an exceptional player. Mark Turner. I’m talking about tenor players now. I just think that the level of musicianship is scary good. Brian Blade. I love everything he plays.
There are just so many young musicians that are learning the craft really well and are being very serious about the art form. I think jazz musicians were always very serious but today people are more expansive. They’re looking at all kinds of world music and looking at the entire tradition of jazz and trying to keep an awareness of that in their music. There’s a whole long list of people. I continually hear young people that probably nobody’s ever heard about but I think that’s amazing. These people have worked hard and they’re so young that they’re going to make huge impressions on the world of jazz.
M: Do you cook?
T: I do.
M: What do you like to cook?
T: Well, I’m a very good cook actually. I’ve been a vegetarian for at least 40 years. I have a lot of things that I like to cook. I like to cook Indian food. I’m getting pretty good with the spices. So I work on different things like that. I make a really good Paneer and Aloo Gobi. I can make stuffed Parathas. They came out pretty good last time.
I was driving home this week listening to NPR and they was an article about blue gnocchi. Do you know what gnocchi is?
M: It’s potato dumplings.
T: Right. It’s basically an Italian potato dumpling My Grandmother used to make that for me so I know what the stuff is supposed to taste like. I had some really good Grandmothers cooking real Italian food for me when I was a kid and have very fond memories of that. So anyway, this article was about how to make blue gnocchi. They’re made with a certain Stokes purple sweet potato. They’re basically sweet potato gnocchi. I didn’t have any purple ones but I had everything to make just sweet potato gnocchi so as soon as I got home I said, “I’m hungry. I’m gonna make some gnocchis”. It was a very simple recipe and it came out great (laughs).
M: Do you have a favorite restaurant in town?
T: Well, you know, again, as a vegetarian the choices are limited given the range of what people like in New Orleans. Seed is a really excellent restaurant for vegetarian/vegan dining. It’s a very high quality food. A lot like what I cook at home. Much more like a San Francisco restaurant.
My son lives in Berkley now so when we visit him there’s a vegetarian or raw or vegan restaurant on every corner. It’s really vegetarian paradise out there.
M: Where is Seed located?
T: Seed is on Prytania. Lower Garden district. It’s quite good.
M: About your new record “Gemini Rising”. You said you overdubbed all the saxophone parts yourself.
M: Are they all tenor parts?
T: No, no. I play all the saxophones. Let me give you a little backstory. My record is basically a sax quartet with drums. Some of those arrangements have been expanded to 8 or 10 pieces. Once I put down the quartet tracks I said, “Wow, it would be nice to hear a few extra tracks there”. I’ve been presenting saxophone quartet music for a while now.
In the early 80’s I had a group with Roger Lewis, Fred Kemp and Earl Turbinton. That was the first incarnation of The New Orleans Saxophone Ensemble. We did a European tour. We did a record for Rounder Records. People really enjoyed what we did. It was very unique. There weren’t any other saxophone groups around New Orleans anyway. But over the years, since then, I’ve always had my saxophone book and from time to time people have called me for saxophone ensemble gigs.
After Katrina I had sort of a regular night at The Columns Hotel. The group that I had was Jason Mingledorff, Khari Allen Lee and Alonzo Bowen and myself. That was the most current version of my saxophone quartet. That’s basically going to be the core group that will be playing at The M performance. In addition to that I’m going to have a few special guests. I’m not saying who they are yet. I’m also going to have some students from Loyola so what you’ll get at The M’s performance is an 8 to 10, maybe 12 saxophones onstage all at once. Soprano, alto, tenor, bari, maybe bass sax and drums. So just saxophone and drums, what could be better than that?
M: Who is going to be playing the drums?
T: I’m gonna ask Johnny V. Johnny’s on a couple of cuts on the record and I love what he plays. He played on two cuts with me. One was sort of a second line thing and another one was a tango. There wasn’t anybody that I could think of that I would rather have play a tango on drums than Johnny. He played it perfectly, with humor, with dynamics and oh, man! It’s gorgeous.
M: So you recorded the complete saxophone tracks and then overdubbed the drums?
T: Yes. I started out with some of the quartets that I was most familiar with and then I wrote some new music for the record. I used a couple of the arrangements that I already had. When you’re recording one part at a time it doesn’t sound like anything until you get the last part on. The first part doesn’t really sound like anything. Then you put the second part, and then the third part, it still doesn’t sound right. You finally get that fourth part on there and “Aahh. There it is”. It’s kind of challenging. People who have reviewed the record don’t really take note of the fact of what an achievement that was for one person to do all the parts (laughs). But for me that was the most exciting part of the thing, getting the parts to sound right together.
One thing that I did do is put some virtual drums on there to help me sort of get the vibe and the feeling. I’m pretty good with sequencing and working with Digital Performer. I made some nice virtual parts but the live parts just completed it beautifully. When the live drums came in it’s like, “Oh yeah. That sounds like the record”. Johnny V. plays on 2 cuts. Herlin Riley is on 5 or 6. Also my good friend Troy Davis is on a couple tracks.
M: Were they playing to the virtual drums or were they playing to a click track?
T: We took out the virtual drums. They had a click track if they wanted it. The entire saxophones were done so for them, they were playing along the complete band. They didn’t have to do anything or think about that there were going to be different parts. They were hearing everything that could be heard.
M: They had the fun job.
T: Yeah, yeah. Actually that was fun for me too, producing the drummers. I could tell them, “Why don’t you do this here?” It was a lot of fun because my work was done. I had made all the adjustments that I needed to make so producing other people, telling other people what to do is a lot of fun.