Azar Lawrence Quartet at the RG Club
November 2, 2012-July 21, 2013
Venetians like to consider themselves among the hipper denizens of the Los Angeles area, yet remarkably, there hasn't been a Venice jazz club in over 20 years. And any neighborhood that aspires to "hipness" better be able to boast of a cool and swingin' space to dig jazz. Sadly, not since the '80s, when the late Comeback Inn hosted jazz greats like Frank Morgan, George Cables, and Henry Franklin, among others, has there been a "hang" for jazz lovers by this beach town.
All that changed last fall. Venice is hip again!
Anyone at all familiar with the entertainment business would agree that opening a jazz club is a project best left to certified masochists and financially secure dreamers. Successful Venice realtor, Brad Neal, may be both.
An intrepid and eternally optimistic music lover, Neal, like every other club owner, has had to manage myriad taskslike navigating the endless permit processes, installing quality sound and lighting systems, stocking the bar and kitchen, hiring responsible staff... oh, and booking the musicians. And after all that, there's always the nightly agita- inducing routine of "countin' the asses" in the seats.
A Sysiphean task, indeed! Yet Neal was not to be deterred from realizing his swingin' dream. Although characterized as a "soft opening," the November 2nd, 2012 premiere of the RG Club was, to quote the illustrious bebopper Maynard G. Krebs, "a gas!" Upon arriving at this once lurid and seedy stretch of Lincoln Boulevard (meant in a good way!), guests were greeted by bold neon, valet parking service and a billboard featuring the welcoming and joyous visage of tenor and soprano sax master, Azar Lawrence, smiling beatifically down upon the jazz acolytes, assorted visitors and the human detritus that, like the nearby tide, comes and goes along the boulevard. Inside, a sleek, modern club adorned with walls, chairs and couches of blood red, gray and black beckoned.
At the stroke of 9:00 p.m. (the band's announced "hit time") the club itself, despairing of the emptiness within, seemed to emit a visceral groan. But then miraculously, like Moses parting the Red Sea, more and more people entered and, by 9:15, asses filled every seat. Halleleujah, the Azar Lawrence Quartet's residency was about to begin!
At 9:20, Azar "the A Train" Lawrence fearlessly led the band onto the not-yet-elevated stage (one more item on Neal's "to-do" list). One look from the sax man and the cats tore right into "Summer Solstice," a Lawrence original he recorded most recently on his critically acclaimed CD, Mystic Journey (Furthermore, 2010). Lawrence took the first solo, an out-of-this-world tenor sax exploration. No need to slowly fire his engine, Lawrence came roarin' right out of the gate. Long-time friend (and, recently, a band mate again), drummer extraordinaire Alphonse Mouzon, drove the band mercilessly, his percussive energy seemingly levitating this explosive drummer above his impressive kit. Likewise, long time members of the Lawrence rhythm section, the inspired and inspiring pianist, Theo Saunders, and the band's heart beat, Henry "the Skipper" Franklin = 21897, a granite-like foundation of the L. A. jazz scene since the 1960s, poured their souls into this improvisational, sonic orgy.
Somehow managing to collect himself after this music marathon, Lawrence took a few moments to enlighten the enthralled audience about his musical history. He spoke of his early "adoption" by Elvin Jones, the motor driving John Coltrane's classic quartet, who in 1971 took the underage Lawrence to New York for a gig at the Village Vanguard, thus launching the young man's professional career into the jazz stratosphere. Eventually, after performing at the Vanguard several times and crossing paths with McCoy Tyner, Coltrane's long time pianist and someone whom Lawrence often fantasized about playing with but never having the chance to meetfate intervened.
Lawrence was again playing at the Vanguard, but this time Tyner's next out of town gig was cancelled so, one night, Tyner's drummer stopped by to check out Jones' band. After hearing the young lion's tenor roar and then consulting with the leader, he invited Lawrence to sit in with Tyner's band at their next performance. That drummer was none other than Mouzon, who had come to Tyner after helping to found the new super band, Weather Report. And although he would continue with the band only a short time longer, he and Lawrence collaborated on Tyner's smokin' live recording, Enlightenment Suite (Blue Note, 1974).