ASTRO expands on the wide-ranging explorations of Anders Svanoe

The saxophonist’s monthly residency at Café Coda continues on July 6.
Two photos set side-by side show a group of musicians playing saxophones, trumpets, and drumkit in the vinyl library of a radio station. They are photographed from the side and are sitting in a row, with music stands and sheet music in front of them. Colorful streamers hanging from the ceiling are visible at the top of the image.
Anders Svanoe (furthest to the right) plays with ASTRO during a recent recording session at WORT. Photos by Matt Marcus of WORT.

The saxophonist’s monthly residency at Café Coda continues on July 6. 

Sheer variety is something of a driving force for saxophonist and composer Anders Svanoe. The quest to explore a wide range of band configurations and sonic approaches has created an almost paradoxical sense of focus in Svanoe’s recent musical output. The effect multiplies in his monthly first-Thursdays residency at Café Coda with ASTRO (Anders Svanoe’s Teleporting Rhythmic Orchestra). When it launched back in March, Svanoe drew upon his vast array of collaborators and myriad stylistic interests. ASTRO’s journey continues July 6 and August 3, with plans to keep on through the rest of the year. Much as his ongoing series of albums since 2016, State Of The Baritone, wrings versatility from the hefty baritone sax, ASTRO applies the big-band format to original pieces that leave room for plenty of free improvisation and often run on their own strange logic.

ASTRO expands upon the “double trio” format Svanoe explored on 2018’s 747 Queen of the Skies: State Of The Baritone Volume 3, which features two basses and two drumkits. Several of the musicians from that album are in ASTRO’s core lineup: trumpeter Jim Doherty, drummer Michael Brenneis, and bassists Henry Boehm and Brad Townsend. The cast also includes guitarist Louka Patenaude, bassist John Christensen, saxophonists Pawan Benjamin and Tony Catania, trumpeters Dave Cooper and Phil Zell, and drummer Nick Zielinski. With a group this size, things necessarily change up a bit from one show to the next—when Patenaude isn’t available, percussionist Geoff Brady joins on vibraphone (and will again at the July show). But Svanoe is trying to keep the lineup as steady as possible, writing material with specific players in mind. 

“Everybody in that band is a leader in their own right,” Svanoe tells Tone Madison, which kind of captures his humility and practicality. One new piece he composed for ASTRO includes a breakdown in the style of an Eddie Van Halen solo, a nod to Patenaude’s love for Van Halen. The score for “Signals” has sections that instruct the musicians to stop playing and talk randomly over each other for a few measures, which had me keeling over with laughter during the band’s June gig. As ambitious, inventive, and sometimes playful as this music is, Svanoe takes an almost let’s-get-to-work approach—an artist’s commitment meets a Norwegian’s temperament. Everyone in the ensemble gets to stretch out among turbulent rhythms and careening layers of melody, not simply taking solos but showcasing their own versatility. 

The emphasis at these shows is on fresh compositions. “When I started the project, I was like, ‘God, that’s a lot of music that I’m gonna have to write in three weeks. Do I take old music and recycle it and just add parts to it, or do I just start new?'” Svanoe recalls, thinking back to the initial scramble to plan for ASTRO in February. “And I decided to drive myself crazy and start new.” The furious pace of new writing led to a stress-induced health scare for Svanoe. He recovered and seems as sharp as ever in his role as a bandleader. 

Treating composition and improvisation as two sides of the same coin, Svanoe’s material for the project has a certain mix-and-match flexibility built into it. Conducting on the fly, Svanoe can direct the players to change up the order of different sections of a piece, or even switch up parts initially written for a different instrument.

“Even with the tunes that sound like tunes, everybody has everybody’s part,” Svanoe says. “Normally in a big band, if I sit down and I’m playing second alto saxophone, I only have my part…whereas [in ASTRO] everybody’s got everybody’s music. So it was more work for me. But the point of that is, if I instantly want to change the arrangement, if I’m feeling like, ‘Well, I want the backgrounds to be saxophones instead of trumpets or whatever,’ it’s all organized by hand signals. I can just go, ‘OK, you guys read [part] two and you read [part] one.’ Bam, it’s changed.”

This material and lineup might yield the next State Of The Baritone album (which would be its sixth entry). The group recently did some recording at WORT’s vinyl library, and Svanoe is hoping to do another session there. For now, the real fun will be in watching ASTRO unfold and evolve in all its sprawling glory.

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