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Azar Lawrence: Summer Solstice

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Founded in 1949 by Bob Weinstock, the Prestige label was home to some of the best hard bop, swing, and blues music of the '50s and '60s. The diversity of the catalog through subsidiary labels such as Swingville and Bluesville was nothing short of extraordinary. Be it spoken word albums, Southern blues, or the folk strains from India, Japan, or Ireland-there was something for everyone through this ambitious program.

By 1971 when the label was sold to Fantasy Records, the jazz landscape had changed considerably. Herbie Hancock's 1973 classic Head Hunters established a strong foothold amongst a younger generation looking to mix their jazz with rock and funk sensibilities. A few years later, Prestige was deeply entrenched in the sounds of the time, releasing some memorable dates from the likes of Bill Summers, Patrice Rushen, and Gary Bartz. Part of this cadre was young saxophonist Azar Lawrence who made a trio of highly sought after dates for Prestige under the auspices of legendary producer Orrin Keepnews.

Only available for decades via limited Japanese editions, Lawrence's second Prestige set Summer Solstice has recently been issued in an audiophile vinyl edition by Craft Recordings. Mastered by Kevin Gray at his Cohearant Sounds and pressed on 180 gram vinyl at QRP, this reasonably priced reissue is certainly one of the finest historical releases of 2019. My pressing was flat, quiet, and extremely dynamic, making this the definitive version of gem that has been under the radar of jazz listeners for far too long.

Moving beyond the prototype established by the previously mentioned Hancock set, Lawrence strikes a wonderful balance between Brazilian textures and organic grooves. The opening "From the Point of Love" kicks off with wood flute and berimbau, the latter being a Brazilian one-stringed percussion instrument. As more sounds fall into the fold, Albert Dailey's piano vamps, with the jungle sounds of the cuica in accompaniment. Lawrence's silky soprano speaks with its own distinctive voice, even as the saxophonist is often mistakenly likened to John Coltrane.

"Novo Ano" is a sunny samba with jungle tinges and deep bass propulsion provided by the iconic Ron Carter. Amaury Tristao adds the vocalese lines in unison with Lawrence's saxophone lead. Closing out the first side, "From the Point of Light" swings at waltz tempo and features some blustery tenor work from Lawrence. It also includes a trombone statement from Brazilian legend Raul De Souza, a kindred soul to the leader in his ability to transcend genre.

The flipside features two lengthy jams. The title track sets up a 16-bar form with the first eight being a repeated piano riff. The tension created via this device is then released as the bridge breaks free with the momentum of a new chord structure. De Souza is again prominent in the mix with his brilliant statement. "Highway" starts as a lazy bossa nova complete with Tristao's acoustic guitar chords. Eventually things morph into a brisk samba groove highlighted by flute work of Gerald Hayes and another appearance by the cuica. It's a tour-de-force that wraps up an adventurous, but still approachable trinket that manages to transcend its time, sounding as fresh today as ever.

Associated equipment used for evaluation:

VPI Scout 1.1 turntable with Soundsmith Zephyr MK III moving iron cartridge
Musical Fidelity A3CR amplifier and preamp
Sutherland Insight phono preamp
Bryston BCD-1 CD player
Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 805 loudspeakers
Cardas cable and interconnects, Chang Lightspeed power conditioner

Track Listing

From The Point Of Love; Novo Ano; From The Point Of Light; Summer Solstice; Highway.

Personnel

Azar Lawrence: tenor saxophone; Raul se Souza: trombone; Albert Dailey: piano; Ron Carter: bass; Billy Hart: drums.

Album information

Title: Summer Solstice | Year Released: 1975 | Record Label: Prestige

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