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Azar Lawrence: Rising Like Atlantis

By Published: November 6, 2007

AAJ: He called you when Sonny moved on?

AL: He called me a few days later.

AAJ: How long were you with McCoy?

AL: I was with him for five-and-a-half years.

AAJ: And how many albums did you record with him?

AL: Four or five, I know we did at least four.

AAJ: Your mom schooled you on music theory?

AL: She sure did. I was a science major in high school. But I did a lot of performing things. I played with the Jazz Workshop. I went to Jordan High School. The Jazz Workshop was teachers—very, very good. We performed at battles of the bands. I played with Horace Tapscott. In 1969, we use to play every Sunday at 3:00 pm. I wrote a song called "Tapscott's Blues that's on Woody Shaw's Moontrane (Muse, 1974) album. Woody Shaw was on my first album.

AAJ: You guys paired up a lot.

AL: Yeah, we did. Back in 1970, Larry Gales and Candy Finch, a drummer who used to play with Dizzy Gillespie, had an after-hours club on 54th St. in Los Angeles. Tuesdays and Thursdays and I would play with Larry and Candy Finch on drums, and Rose Gales played piano, sometimes it was Billy Higgins, and sometimes Woody Shaw would play. One of the fabulous blessings along the way. And then, Mtume used to play, he did a series of records before he really became big and famous.

I met Mtume in Los Angeles in '68, he was playing with a conga player named Big Black. We became really good friends. He did a series of projects himself that he funded and recorded in White Plains, New York. I would pick up Dee Dee Bridgewater at the Port Authority, and she'd drive with me up there to his father's, which was Jimmy Heath. He was on all my albums on Fantasy. Mtume was close to Miles Davis. He would come down when I was in town with McCoy and bring Miles. And afterwards Miles would come up and say, "You sound good. That's what led to my recording with him, we recorded the Dark Magus (Columbia, 1974) album live at Carnegie Hall.

AAJ: How long did you work with Miles?

Azar Lawrence / Miles DavisAL: Well, he wanted me to join the group, but McCoy and I were really close. I didn't want to leave McCoy just then. So, I told Miles, "Neither one of you guys works that much, maybe I'll work with both of you. And Miles said, "I hope it works out for you.

AAJ: What was he like?

AL: Just phenomenal, to say the least. I learned so much, in three nights I got forty years of experience.

AAJ:I heard by that point in the electric thing it was getting pretty free. Was it easy to step into that?

AL: Yeah, you know it was easy to step into that, but no easier than McCoy. If you're on the level of it, then it is easy. If you're there, you're there. One guy sat in with us who I'd looked up to for many years. To me, he was like Dolphy, but he walked onstage, and I realized how big the music is. Playing with a guy like McCoy, or Elvin, they played with Trane. I saw him come to it, like he'd shrunk up to about five feet. He was gone, I couldn't even see him. Looked down there he was playing a little, "tee, tee, tee.

Another friend of mine played drums with McCoy and rehearsed, everything was cool, but we got to the job and you could hear the music and you couldn't hear the drums. Drums are the loudest thing up there. So that's how big the music is, on that level. If you're there with it, then you gotta be big with it.

AAJ: Do you play soprano anymore?

AL: Actually I'm going to be doing some things, recording with the soprano. I just figured the tenor was such a life's endeavor, if I could just play that well... I'm getting ready to record a new album. We're going to start recording next month. We're going to use the band from the other night, Lester, Gerald, Michael. It was fun playing with Nate Morgan that night. Nate and I grew up together.

AAJ: Any word of your three solo records coming back out?

AL: No word as of yet, but a lot people ask me about them.

AAJ: Where did you go from there?

AL: I was on the writing staff of Screen Gems. I wrote "Heart to Heart, "Freedom of Choice, and "Spread Your Love on the Earth, Wind, and Fire Powerlight (Columbia, 1983) LP. I wrote with Maurice White and Beloyd Taylor, and played keyboards. Before that I had a little team with Chuck Jackson and Patryce (Chocolate) Banks. I worked with Stanley Turrentine on the Home Again (Elektra, 1983) record, had four songs on that, played keyboards.

AAJ: That's great to navigate successfully through different genres of music.

AzarAL: It's all music. I was a funkateer before I was branded as jazz. It just happens. I had a group called Starburst that never really got off the ground and I turned that into a group called Chameleon. I did this whole pop thing. But, like Maurice White told me, "There's a lot of saxophone players doing the pop thing, but none of them can do what you do. In fact, I'm working with a hip-hop group.

We have a record company with a friend of mine named Daud Ford, better known as Dee, in Las Vegas, a company called Deuces Wild Records. We have a project we're working that's hip-hop jazz. Dee's one of the top hip-hop writers, producers, and rappers. In the last few years I've just been playing live, riding on a lot of the things I've done. I did a lot of writing, not just Earth, Wind, and Fire, but motion picture stuff. I was a staff writer for Screen Gems, and also Polygram, just extensive writing.

I lived in Las Vegas for about five or six years. I played with Bobby Hutcherson, played with Cedar Walton. Billy Higgins and I played a lot. We did a movie called Recycler (2001) that's out right now. Billy Higgins, Kito Gamble, Jeffrey Littleton plays bass, Richard Grant plays trumpet, we performed, we played a group called the Egyptians. We played throughout the movie, and we played live and wore these costumes, we looked like Egyptians. Billy had a few lines. Kito Gamble, great piano soloist.

She's from the Bay Area. She sings and she was doing the hip-hop thing. First time I heard her I was doing the jam session at the World Stage. My eyes are closed and somebody else sat down at the piano, and I thought McCoy had come in there, or Alice Coltrane, someone at that level.

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