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Azar Lawrence Has Paid His Dues...Two times

Azar Lawrence Has Paid His Dues...Two times

Courtesy Chuck Koton


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Given the shared connections to the music of John Coltrane, directly for Sanders and, for Lawrence, as a member of the bands of both Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, this pairing of spiritual musicians was destined to happen. The historic concert will be streamed from Zebulon Cafe to a world-wide audience on October 13th, Sanders 80th birthday. The performance will also promote two vital themes of our precarious times: Fight Racism & Get Out and Vote.
Tenor and soprano saxophonist Azar Lawrence has been one of the most dynamic and spiritually-charged reed players of the post-John Coltrane generation. Lawrence forged his sound in the fires of the Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner bands in the 1970s and, for nearly five decades, he has performed and recorded with the best musicians in the world. Today, Lawrence is at the peak of his horn playing, blowing with as much beauty, power and intensity as anyone on the music scene.

The return of Azar Lawrence to the mainstream jazz scene is one of the most gratifying developments in recent jazz history. His re-dedication to his musical gift, evidenced by the seven-hour days he devotes to practice, has not only allowed him to resume the journey towards his musical destiny, it has also given the jazz world what is, in a way, a "new" master of the saxophone. His compelling sound and passionate live performances, poignantly and viscerally reveal an artist at the peak of his musical powers.

Lawrence began "paying dues" on his musical journey at the age of three, when he would sit at the side of his music teacher Mom, Ima Lawrence, learning to play piano. By the time he enrolled at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, Lawrence had already dedicated himself to obsessively practice the tenor saxophone up to six hours a day. At times, this even meant cutting school and heading home to practice with his dear friend, the late piano prodigy, Herbie Baker, whom many cats at the time were comparing favorably to Herbie Hancock.

An early influence on Lawrence's musical destiny was his friend, the late drummer (and son of tenor veteran Benny Golson), Reggie Golson, who schooled the young Lawrence on the music of Coltrane, among others, and who would later get Lawrence an invitation to sit in with the band of a family friend, the incomparable jazz master of the drums, Elvin Jones. That opportunity came in 1972 when Jones brought his band to play at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach and extended an invitation for the young man to sit in.

The audition with Jones that weekend made quite an impact on the former mainstay of Coltrane's classic quartet because by the time their plane flew back to NYC, Lawrence had become the newest member of Jones' band. Upon their arrival in New York City, Lawrence began performing with Jones in leading clubs like the Village Vanguard, in which the then 20-year old was still too young to drink. Lawrence proceeded to tour and record with Jones' band, but a couple of years later another opportunity arose that would fulfill Lawrence's life-long dream.

During his two years with Jones, the hurricane-like power of Lawrence's sax sound had begun attracting notice around the New York clubs. Then, one night in 1973, the late drummer Alphonse Mouzon, who was in NYC for an upcoming gig with McCoy Tyner at the Village Vanguard, just happened to go down to the venerable jazz club to catch Jones' band as they concluded their engagement. That night, Mouzon heard the young man playing tenor sax and emphatically suggested that Tyner hire Lawrence for the band. That next week, while Tyner's band took over the Village Vanguard, Lawrence sat in for a set. That was all it took for Lawrence to finally realize his ultimate goal, to play with McCoy Tyner. The next day, Tyner hired Lawrence to replace Sonny Fortune, when the late reed and flute maestro went on to join Miles Davis' band. During the 5 years that Lawrence performed with Tyner, he toured extensively and played an integral role on several highly acclaimed recordings, including Enlightenment (Milestone,1973), a live recording from the Montreux Jazz Festival.

While burning up ears with Tyner at that world-renowned Swiss festival, the sax prodigy attracted the attention of producer Orrin Keepnews, who later signed Lawrence to lead his own band for three recordings on the Prestige label. It was also at Montreux that Lawrence hooked up with quite a few jazz greats, including bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Hart, both of whom would later join the rising sax star in the studio for those Prestige recordings. And though still a full -time member of the Tyner band, Lawrence also came to the attention of Miles Davis, who brought him to Carnegie Hall for the live recording, Dark Magus (CBS/Sony, 1977).

Yes indeed, Lawrence's "dues paying," the many hours of solitary practice and the years of apprenticeship with jazz giants like Jones and Tyner had yielded a sweet harvest, but he would soon take an extended detour away from the jazz scene.

But in the 1980s, Lawrence changed direction and made a successful return to his early roots in funk, writing and performing with superstars like Marvin Gaye on Here, My Dear (Motown, 1978) and on Earth, Wind & Fire's recording, Powerlight (Columbia, 1983). Remarkably, as the years went by, Lawrence actually put down his horn and successfully focused on writing pop songs and playing keyboards. And so Lawrence seemingly disappeared from the jazz world.

But eventually, as the years went by, the inner jazz flame began to burn once more, and it was time to "pay his dues" a second time. So he started wood shedding again, blowing day and night until he got his sax chops back. In addition to those intense and lonely hours of practice, Lawrence played a regular weekend gig at Billy Higgins' World Stage in Los Angeles with various local musicians with whom he quickly developed a synergistic relationship and who would soon become integral members of his West Coast based band.

And then, nearly three decades after his last recording as a leader for Prestige Records, the saxophonist returned to the studio and released several highly acclaimed recordings including, Prayer For My Ancestors (Furthermore Recordings, 2009), where he was joined by old friends from his early days in Los Angeles including veteran bassist Henry "the Skipper" Franklin, the late piano master, Nate Morgan and old friend from the Tyner band, renowned drummer Alphonse Mouzon. The following year Lawrence released Mystic Journey (Furthermore Recordings, 2010), a recording that finally attracted significant attention as it climbed up the Jazz Week sales chart. For this recording, the reed master recruited some old friends and a few younger cats on the NY jazz scene. Rashied Ali, Coltrane's final drummer, joined Lawrence, along with veterans Dr Eddie Henderson on trumpet and altoist Gerald Hayes. Lawrence also called on two of the rising stars on the New York scene, meteoric pianist Benito Gonzalez, who had just finished up several years as a member of Kenny Garrett's band and Essiet Okun Essiet, a first call bassist.

While his studio recordings have revealed to listeners a musician both dedicated to his craft and someone capable of generating a burning passion and spiritual devotion, ultimately, it is Lawrence's live performances that have produced an even more profound impact on audiences around the world. Consequently, it was a long awaited moment when his performance at New York's Jazz Standard was recorded. Lawrence again recruited a powerhouse rhythm section composed of dynamic, first call musicians like pianist Benito Gonzalez, bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Jeff Tain Watts, along with trumpet master, Nicholas Payton and The Seeker (Sunnyside Communications, 2014), earned considerable critical acclaim.

In 2018, the veteran horn player concluded a deal with Concord Records which led to the re-release of Lawrence's earlier Prestige recordings including Bridge To the New Age (Jazz Dispensary, 2018) and Summer Solstice (Jazz Dispensary, 2019). 2019 ended with a blistering performance at the Grammy Museum in L.A. and the prospects for 2020 were bright, with gigs booked for the Playboy Jazz Festival and a European tour. But then the Covid virus struck and these plans were put on hold.

However, with management now in the capable hands of Tracy Hannah, Lawrence's career is percolating again. Lawrence has a new label, Trazar Records, and in September 2020, Lawrence will team up with Pharoah Sanders for a concert and a new recording.

This historic performance will be streamed to jazz lovers around the world, thanks in large part, to the support of a Parisian team of owners who, after hearing the music of John Coltrane, recognized instantly that life would never be the same. In order to transform this epiphany into material reality, the Zebulon team hoped to open a club where they could present musicians who made magic with their instruments in a free and spiritually pure approach, like Coltrane. so they opened Zebulon Cafe in New York City in 2003 and, for nearly 10 years, brought an eclectic array of artists to his stage, earning a well deserved reputation for integrity. Eventually, the team relocated to the West Coast where, in 2017, they opened Zebulon Cafe in the hip Los Angeles neighborhood of Eagle Rock. During the last three years uncompromising artists such as Roscoe Mitchell, co-founder of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra, sax master Azar Lawrence, and avant-garde saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, have graced the Zebulon stage. But then, in the wake of the virus, the live music scene was devastated.

Venues from coast to coast have since shuttered their doors, while others have scrambled to find a new business model which will permit live music to thrive once again. Like many other club owners, the Zebulon team invested thousands of dollars in video equipment and taken steps to bring the very best musicians to Zebulon where they can perform safely for what is now a global cyber audience.

On September 23rd, the 94th anniversary of John Coltrane's birth, Azar Lawrence brought a band into Zebulon to record a concert with the iconic saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders, in celebration of the music legend's 80th birthday. Sanders, who famously joined Coltrane's band in 1965, brought a ferocity and power that Coltrane increasingly relied upon as his health deteriorated. Now the last surviving member of Coltrane's final earth-shaking band, Sanders has, for six decades, made music that is deeply rooted in spirituality. His saxophonic explorations alternate between the most sublime and gentle melodies and flights of frenzied, ecstatic improvisations.

Given the shared connections to the music of John Coltrane, directly for Sanders and, for Lawrence, as a member of the bands of both Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, this pairing of spiritual musicians was destined to happen. The historic concert will be streamed from Zebulon Cafe to a world-wide audience on October 13th, Sanders 80th birthday. The performance will also promote two vital themes of our precarious times: Fight Racism & Get Out and Vote.

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