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Azar Lawrence Quartet at the RG Club

Chuck Koton By

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Azar Lawrence Quartet and Special Guests
RG Club
Venice, CA
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 tasks—like 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 meet—fate 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).

In celebration of this recent reunion, the band next took off on a Tyner composition from that live Montreux session, "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit." The band stretched out on this one—Saunders, trance-like, pounding out frenzied rhythms, Franklin diggin' deep into his soul, his swift fingers merging with the bass strings, and Mouzon, a blur behind his kit as he unleashed a primal force of drum beats that shook the walls. Lawrence's blowin' reached astral heights. His passionate tenor pleas no doubt enticed the jazz spirits to join in with unrestrained abandonment to the music. What else is there to say? Venetians fortunate enough to have witnessed this night will have an indelible jazz memory seared into their collective memory forever, and an irresistible reason to return and keep this newly birthed jazz club thriving!

The RG Club continued to percolate throughout December, as several stellar guests joined Lawrence's quartet. On the first Friday of the month (Dec 1st), the youngest member of Philly's first family of jazz, Albert "Tootie" Heath, brought his seven decades of "rhythm- a-ning" to the bandstand. From the first beat of Frank Foster's "Simone," Heath's sensitive, veteran's touch established a slick and understated groove, in marked contrast to the band's customary, thunderous sound. Gently caressing the cymbals and skins, Heath deftly drove the rhythm section with an infectious joy, yet with an economy of sound energy. Meanwhile, Saunders' left hand on the deep-toned ivories and Franklin's heavy, repetitive bass beat generated a controlled rumble. But, like Pompeian urbanites living in too close proximity to pitiless Mt. Vesuvius, the standing-room audience began to feel an inexorable force generating within the RG Club's walls.



And then it came! As Lawrence strode up to the microphone, an explosion of sonic lava poured forth from his tenor sax. Lawrence blew on and on in an almost otherworldly state of pure abandonment to the sound. A packed crowd later left the club with a newfound understanding of what a really burnin' jazz band sounds like.

On Saturday, December 2nd Lawrence brought in special guest, trumpet master Nolan Shaheed, to enhance the musical festivities. On the opening of John Coltrane's blues, "Lonnie's Lament," the band played with a solemn restraint. Mouzon's shimmering cymbals, Saunders' thunderous ivories and Franklin's deeply pulsating bass established the tune's mournful tone.

And then came the flood! A torrent of soul sounds poured forth from the stage like a great ocean wave slamming into a concrete wall, enveloping the mostly unprepared listeners. Lawrence, on tenor sax, took flight, higher and higher on an ecstatic journey; the only fitting comparison, a frenzied whirling dervish. Next, Shaheed blew his own electricity, literally leaving his feet to punctuate his brassy solo. All this while Saunders, Franklin and Mouzon cranked up the rhythmic heat, ultimately leaving the audience as exhausted as the band.

The second set featured another welcome guest, the incomparable vocalist Dwight Trible, who joined the band for a memorable performance of the classic Coltrane original, "Naima." Trible, whose vocal style suggests the influence of such seemingly disparate sources as Johnny Hartman and Leon Thomas, never fails to make every song he sings his own. Reaching deep within for every plaintive word, Trible's voice touched every heart in the house.



The band closed out this particular evening in "gut bucket" style with McCoy Tyner's "Blues On The Corner." Appropriately featuring Theo Saunders, the pianist ascended to the thin air of jazz heaven on his gravity-defying solo while Lawrence, rockin' his tenor sax skyward, blew another possessed solo.

After 1:00am, a packed and sweaty houseful of overwhelmed listeners, finally stumbled out the door and into the welcoming and cool Venice night.

2013 continued to sizzle in Venice, CA as club owner Brad Neal, a passionate lover of this music, extended the Lawrence residency at the RG Club indefinitely. Neal had no choice. He needed a place to hang on the weekends. And now Lawrence, who the previous October played a week of sold-out concerts celebrating the music of John Coltrane at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola in NYC's Lincoln Center, had a long-term gig where he and the band could really work their way to true musical synchronicity.

By mid-February, Lawrence and his rhythm mates had clearly coalesced into that increasingly rare musical species, the elusive "seamless quartet." One look from rhythm masters Saunders, Franklin and Mouzon, and suddenly the beat would speed up, slow down, or shift to a Latin flavor, while Lawrence jousted with them playfully.

The contemporary jazz scene increasingly promotes soloists, often leaving the identity of the rhythm section to be determined by fate. With minimal if any rehearsal, the repertoire tends to be limited to standards. But too often, the mechanical patterns of successive solos replace the lifeblood of jazz, improvisational ensemble interaction.

Not at the RG Club!



On another night (February 16), 'bone master Phil Ranelin sat in. Ranelin, a full-blooded member of the illustrious Naptown (Indianapolis, that is) Jazz Brotherhood, along with Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard and James Spaulding, first moved from Indiana on to the Motor City to establish Detroit's formidable Tribe Renaissance, with which he recorded the much acclaimed Vibes From the Tribe (Hefty Records, 2001) and The Time Is Now (Hefty Records, 2001). Then, in 1977, Ranelin re-located to the City of Angels where for decades, he has been an integral member of the jazz scene, receiving many public honors for his work as a community cultural ambassador.

Lawrence pulled out all the stops on this night by performing Coltrane's opus, "A Love Supreme," a work best performed by those musicians truly inspired by Trane's spirit. Lawrence and these gentlemen left no doubt in anyone's mind of their "street cred." It took only three notes for the many Coltrane cognoscenti among the standing-room jazz constituents to emit their own chorus of knowing "oohs" and "ahs." Oh yeah, we were in for a serious treat.

The tenor sax blew those first timeless notes and soon all present ascended to a higher plane. Ranelin's trombone, at times a rambunctious elephant, at other times a soothing whisperer, followed in Lawrence's frothy wake. All the while, Saunders, Franklin and Mouzon drove the rhythmic pace mercilessly. Other than comparing those 20-plus minutes to a sacred rite, words have no appropriate descriptive power for this spiritual experience.

And then remarkably, as soon as the aural tide subsided, Lawrence returned to center stage, looked over to his partners and whispered, "Say It Over and Over." With the crowd still reeling, the band effortlessly down-shifted to this classic Jimmy McHugh ballad, so memorably recorded by the Coltrane quartet on Ballads (Impulse!, 1963). Sweet and lovely sounds replaced the turbulent musical storm. Mouzon even set down his potent sticks and picked up his brushes to play appropriately languorous and swingin' rhythms.

Over the next few months, Lawrence invited several more of his friends to join him on the bandstand. In April, Mouzon departed for a few weeks worth of European tours, first with the "Miles Smiles" band led by Wallace Roney, and then for a reunion with his former Eleventh House band mates. On this occasion, Lawrence's old pal, the illustrious Jabali Billy Hart, sat in behind the drums and ratcheted up the musical tension considerably, his mere presence seemingly generating an unmistakable air of excitement.



More recently (June 21), Mouzon's old band mate from the ground-breaking fusion band Eleventh House, guitar legend Larry Coryell and his talented son, Julian, both sat in with the band. Having guests sit in, no matter how illustrious and über-talented, creates a complication for a bandleader, in other words calling a tune that everyone knows. While playing a couple of Lawrence originals, including the modal title tune from his soon-to-be-released CD, The Seeker, recorded live at NYC's Jazz Standard, Coryell mostly limited himself to judicious comping. Meanwhile Lawrence, on soprano, and the rhythm section, with great restraint, slowly built up the sonic tension before releasing the searing heat. But when they played a blues, Coryell, one of the true guitar giants for over four decades, followed James Brown's advice and really "turned it loose." A raucous jam followed as all took turns to display their serious blues chops.

Finally, in July, the band's last weekend of the prolonged residency, veteran trombone master, Motown's George Bohanon, was the guest of honor.

While a slow-moving summer fog enveloped the streets of this beachfront neighborhood with a decidedly noirish mood, the band attacked the music with a ferocity not often heard in jazz clubs these days.

After playing the familiar melody of "Body and Soul," Lawrence stepped aside and gave Bohanon the first solo. Like the professional he is, Bohanon varied the pace and intensity of his solo, his horn producing a great depth of feeling, appropriate to the romantic lyrics of this classic ballad. At times gruff, at other times gentle, Bohanon's 'bone even quoted "It Might As Well Be Spring" along the way to capturing the hearts of this fortunate audience.

The band closed the night with the jazz classic, "Moment's Notice," generating the heat of a torrid Santa Ana wind blowing in from the eastern desert. Feet were tappin,' fingers were snappin' and heads were joyously boppin' as the band played on and on, truly "raging at the dying of the light." Following the arrangement recorded by John Coltrane on Blue Train (Blue Note, 1957), the band ratcheted up the intensity for nearly 15 minutes. Just as the listeners felt the music concluding, the two bar break would simply re-energize the musicians time and again as the band exploded like a Fourth of July fireworks bombardment. Mouzon relentlessly propelled the rhythm, Saunders pounded the piano keys with preternatural devotion, and Franklin smiled beatifically as his swift fingers tore up the bass.

Since the start of his RG Club residency ten months ago, Lawrence and the cats had truly put on a memorable jazz experience. This "take no prisoners" band, a rarity these days when a "cooler," more detached style seems to be in favor, was a welcome reminder of a time when jazz bands really "cooked" up on the stand. Lawrence, who inherited the fire of Coltrane's music from his apprenticeships with Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, with the help of his musical cohorts Mouzon (who will be releasing several new CDs in the upcoming months, featuring Wallace Roney, Larry Coryell and Joey DeFrancesco, Saunders and Franklin, is determined to keep that spiritual flame burning brightly. In addition to the upcoming release of The Seeker, Lawrence and the rhythm section will be joining George Bohanon at the upcoming Detroit Jazz Festival (Aug. 30-Sept. 1) while continuing the RG Club residency on Sunday nights for the next few weeks.

The birth of a new jazz club is a holy and ("wholly welcome"!) event, especially in a musical environment so commercially suffocating as LA can be. Driven by the crass pursuit of the almighty dollar (so often justified with an off-hand allusion to the "reality" of the music business), a supportive and acoustically high-quality space is hard to find. To his credit, Neal has provided a true public service by presenting Lawrence's killer band to jazz lovers in Southern California. Over these many months, the staff has even begun to "train" unsophisticated listeners to "shut the fuck up" during bass solos.



Back in the day, jazz bands often played extended gigs in clubs around the country. In 1957 Thelonious Monk played for a legendary six month "residency" at the Five Spot. Later, in 1959, the Ornette Coleman Quartet performed their groundbreaking music for two-and-a-half months at the same Bowery club. These are just two examples of this almost extinct musical showcase. Lawrence's nearly year-long engagement has truly been a remarkable and rare experience.

The reality of running a jazz club may be getting to Neal. At present, he is contemplating his options for the club's future and his role in it. Nevertheless, he has stated that jazz will unequivocally be a vital part of that future. For that we are all grateful. With the Jazz Bakery still only a vision in the indefatigable Ruth Price's imagination, let's hope that the community gets behind Brad Neal's effort. Right now, the forecast for the RG Club looks bright and clear as a summer afternoon in Southern California.

Photo Credit

All Photos: Chuck Koton

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