Tony Dagradi’s recent release, "Gemini Rising," is a unique recording of original compositions, and one Monk composition (Monk’s Mood) performed by a section of saxophones (all played by Dagradi) and only drums. Joined by some fo the busiest working drummers in New Orleans, John Vidacovich, Herlin Riley and Troy Davis, the music on the CD overflows with rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic energy.
A mainstay on the New Orleans music scene for over thirty years, Dagradi has not only performed with some the city’s top musicians, such as Ellis Marsalis, Allen Toussaint, James booker, and others, but also as a member of groups led by Carla Bley and Bobby McFerrin, and is currently a member of the recognized quintet from New Orleans, Astral Project. He is currently a faculty member at Loyola University, where he has taught saxophone and various classes in jazz since 1990.
The CD opens with The Wheel and immediately kicks off with a driving groove laid down by the baritone saxophone and accompanying rhythmic figures by the rest. The Wheel uses a quartet of alto, two tenors, and baritone saxophone to convey Dagradi's ear catching opener that pops with rhythmic synchronization. This instrumentation represents the first recording of Dagradi performing on alto and baritone saxophone, and is used not only for The Wheel, but also on Sweet Remembrance, Glory, Monk's Mood and Sweet Faced Lie on this CD. Dagradi's baritone playing on these and the other compositions on this CD is robust, and his tone is full-bodied while his alto playing is appropriately pliable, but also projecting when leading the group.
Sweet Faced Lie provides a Blakey-styled shuffle anchored nicely by drummer Troy Davis and played with the expected hard hitting style, as well as spirited tenor saxophone solo. Dagradi's expressive contemporary alto saxophone sound is also featured as the lead and soloist in the Gospel-influenced, medium groove, Glory. Monk's Mood is a luscious arrangement performed with sensitivity, and captures Thelonious Monk's humor, as wells genius, while Sweet Rmembrance emotes subliminal musical feeling underpinned with a mysterious Latin-American rhythmic backdrop as its foundation.
Dagradi's use of the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophone quartet instrumentation can be heard on the funky hard -hitting title cut, Gemini Rising, and again on Spherical and Tango. Spherical provides the CD with a blues-drenched New Orleans second line groove, with Dagradi's soprano solo flying effortlessly over top the solid executed groove throughout. Dagradi's tongue-in-cheek Tango is well played, and effectively portrays the dance, as well as emotion, among others, characteristics of the style.
The remaining three compositions, Mandela, Sohana Sha Kirpal and Cannonball incorporate expanded saxophone ensembles. Mandela's groove is celebratory, with a strong rhythmic drive and ostinato momentum, with solos by Dagradi matching the style and groove accordingly. While Sohana Sha Kirpal offers a full textured pop-styled ballad with complimentary harmonies. Cannoball is a fun riff blues with a multiplicity of saxophone layers giving the track a sonorous sound from start to finish.
Kudos to Dagradi for not only selecting, writing, and arranging for saxophone ensembles a set of interesting and enjoyable tunes on the CD, but also performing the heck out of them on each instrument.