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Azar Lawrence: Rising Like Atlantis

Rex  Butters By

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It's just getting out of the way and letting the Most High come through. That's all it is.
AzarIt's an uncharacteristically quiet Friday night at Los Angeles' World Stage, but that's about to change. Recent 2007 appearances here and up the street at 5th St. Dick's have served notice that saxophonist Azar Lawrence is back. One of the brightest young stars of the late seventies, Lawrence found regular employment with Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner, to name a rarified few. After burning his way through three solo albums, his name dropped from the jazz annals until his reemergence in Leimert Park.

Having Benny Golson's son, Reggie, as a close childhood friend gave the young Lawrence a close look at a musician both respected and influential in the jazz world, who also took advantage of the many opportunities available to an LA artist. Soon the fiery tenor virtuoso found himself in demand at movie studios, as well as writing and arranging for funk/soul bands. Not such a stretch, remembering his first jobs with Ike & Tina Turner, Eric Burdon & War, Marvin Gaye, and the Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band.

By the time he unpacks and assembles his tenor, the modest room has filled with an eclectic crowd, many returning fans. Coming up at a time when every young strong original player had to endure "the New Coltrane collar, Lawrence still embraces and celebrates his legacy. The program features several Coltrane classics, as well as Ellington and Tyner beauties. On each, the tenor player hungrily finds new ways and original approaches with even greater speed and power than his younger self demonstrated with Tyner blowing the roof off the cavernous Royce Hall thirty years ago. Here in the small confines of the Stage, after this musical blast furnace finishes people must peel themselves off the walls.

When his crackling quartet—including pianist Michael Andrews, drummer Gerald Ballard and bassist Lester McFarland—play the opening chords of "My Favorite Things, you wonder what tricks Lawrence can possibly ring out of the old dog. But, he throws open a vault, exposing a treasure trove of undiscovered riches. With the rhythm section at his back like stampeding bulls, Lawrence plays for his life, like a man on fire. He recently recorded with Jesse Sharps, Roberto Miranda, Ndugu Chandler, and others in a large group called The Gathering, and filmed a performance for Time/Warner that's due to be broadcast. A new solo album is in the works.

AAJ: You were born in LA?

AL: Yeah, we lived at Avalon and 47th, then we moved to Baldwin Hills. We were one of three black families living there at that time. Tommy Davis, the Willie Mays of the Dodgers, and Louis Jordan was a neighbor as well. My mother was a pianist and a music teacher. She made sure I practiced. I started playing violin when I was five. My brother and I played violin in the USC Junior Orchestra. I switched to the alto saxophone at eight.

AAJ: Was your dad a musician too?

AL: No, he bought me my instruments. When I needed an alto he bought me a Selmer. He got the top of the line, whatever it was I needed. A guy named Raymond Pound, the drummer on Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man (Motown, 1972) album, he said, "You might as well switch to a man's instrument and play tenor. As soon as I did I started working.

AAJ: What was it like playing with Ike & Tina?

AL: It was just a recording session. It was nice. Tina was so laid back. I didn't know it was her. She came in with groceries, just like a little house wife, until she came out with her wig on, and that short dress.

AAJ: What record was it?

AL: I don't even know what the name of it was. We recorded a bunch of stuff. Ike used to have a studio, Bolic Sound, over on La Brea. I recorded a Marvin Gaye album, too, Here, My Dear (Motown, 1978).

Azar Lawrence / Woody Shaw AAJ: How'd you connect with Elvin [Jones]?

AL: Reggie Golson, Benny Golson's son, was a very good friend of mine, and he and Elvin were close. In fact, Elvin had given him a drum set. So, he told Elvin about me, and that's how it happened.

AAJ: Had you already been hit by Coltrane when you started playing with Elvin?

AL: Oh, yeah. Reggie Golson was instrumental in my listening to that stuff. He had a large collection and every day we'd go listen to records. He lived next door to Davy Jones of the Monkees, up in the Hollywood Hills. He was a nice guy, too.

Benny Golson, great saxophonist, wrote for a lot of the TV shows, so they were doing quite well, and lived up there. So, we would go up there and Reggie would put different artists on, and I'd say, "Who's this? Who's that? So I knew all the music. Some of it was bootlegs, stuff that's out now, but wasn't out then. I heard them through Reggie, he had copies of them. I never did ever take my horn and play along. As McCoy would say, I felt the same way about the music as John.

So after Elvin I went with McCoy. I'd wanted to be with McCoy from the very beginning. The summer before I went with Elvin, I drove up to San Francisco with my wife at the time and McCoy was playing at the Keystone Korner. We took a nap after the drive and woke up at 1:30, by the time we got there they'd just played the last note. But then every time Elvin and us would be in town in NY in Manhattan, McCoy was out of town. I never got a chance to hook up.

So, they were off one time and we were playing the Village Vanguard with Elvin and Alphonse Mouzon came down and heard Elvin and told McCoy about me, and so we were off the next week and they came into the Vanguard and McCoy sent a message for me to come down and play-sit in. So, I went down and sat in and that's how the magic happened.


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