The re-emergence of saxophonist Azar Lawrence has been one of the most exciting things and perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of the past five years on the jazz scene. Those who have experienced Azar live in the past year can bear witness to a real life prodigal son story. No doubt remains that he is here to reclaim his title as heir to the throne of the John Coltrane legacy.
A child prodigy, Azar played in the shadows and under the watchful eyes of giants. At 19, he was hired by Miles Davis to perform and record at Carnegie Hall in what would become the 1974 underground classic, Dark Magus. In his twenties, he was taken in by Coltrane acolytes McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones and absorbed all they had to teach. He appeared on several of Tyner's classic '70s recordings and was signed by the Prestige label, where he recorded three albums as a leader.
In the late '70s, Azar left the jazz scene behind for the more lucrative world of R&B music. He can be heard on Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear and Phyllis Hyman's Somewhere In My Lifetime. In the '80s, he joined the legendary soul group, Earth, Wind and Fire and found work in Hollywood scoring films. Then came a time of personal hardship. Azar dropped out of the music scene almost entirely. But he never stopped playing.
Azar's powerful new album, Mystic Journey, is his clearest and boldest statement yet. Whereas his previous album for Furthermore Recordings, Prayer For My Ancestors, found his spirit roaming the vast savannas of Africa, Mystic Journey reveals a restless artist, grappling with his past and looking to the future while remaining grounded in the ever-changing present.
"This album came to me in a dream and from a producers point of view, the mystic journey is truly being expressed," states Lawrence.
If Mystic Journey can be said to be 'about' anything, it is about connections. The first connection is evident on the opening title track. It features his East Coast sidemen: fiery pianist Benito Gonzalez and the rock-solid Essiet Essiet on bass. Along with legendary drummer Rashied Ali, Azar acts as guide on the journey to meet the other two members of the sextet, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and alto saxophonist Gerald Hayes, who are introduced in an Ascension-inspired free jazz fanfare at the end of the tune.
In Benito Gonzalez, Azar found a kindred spirit. One of Azar's major mentors was McCoy Tyner, who is also a big influence on Benito's sound. Gonzalez contributed three tunes to Mystic Journey. "Quest" is a breezy day on the beach with a drink in one hand and warm sand between your toes. "Journey's End" and "Starting Point" show a confident composer, capable of keeping a listener engaged with challenging and complex but memorable tunes.
With the horn players on Mystic Journey, Azar made a new connection and reignited an old one. Eddie Henderson is a name familiar to anyone with more than a glancing appreciation of jazz. When Azar began playing in New York again, he and Eddie hooked up and played a few gigs. Their individual styles strike a yin and yang balance that any two horn players would kill to have.
Gerald Hayes may not be the household name Eddie Henderson is, but his connection to Azar Lawrence goes back to 1975. Hayes played on Summer Solstice, Azar's 1975 album for Prestige. That title track has been re-worked on this recording, almost unrecognizable from the original. Hayes' contribution throughout the album is inspiring.
The presence of McCoy Tyner is felt directly by way of his signature piece "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit." It appeared on his 1973 album, Enlightenment. That recording featured an eager up and coming Azar Lawrence. Nearly 40 years have passed since that live date at Montreux Jazz, but the thundering swagger of the piece hasn't diminished with age. If anything, Azar sounds more confident now as he makes the connection to his past and dedicates the piece to his mentor and friend.
Azar's connection to John Coltrane is not only made through McCoy Tyner and the cover of the classic ballad, "Say It Over Again," but through the drummer on this date, the incomparable Rashied Ali. The two played together not long before Mystic Journey was recorded, and the two had an undeniable chemistry. It would prove to be a bittersweet session as Rashied passed away four months later. Listening to him play on what would be his last session, there is no indication of anything other than a drummer at the top of his game, playing with his signature combination of ferocity and joy. His original composition, "Adrees," is named for his son.
In reflecting on Coltrane's influential spirit Lawrence recalls, "I think that from the very first time I heard Coltrane, when I closed my eyes I could hear a message as plain as day. And it must have awakened something in me that allowed me to use those tones and patterns to tell the story. I think it was best put by McCoy Tyner, when I asked him how he could he play with me after having played with the great Coltrane, and he said 'you and John feel the same way about music.'"
Azar Lawrence Sextet - Tribute to Ali's Alley
Azar Lawrence, Tenor and Soprano Sax; Eddie Henderson, Trumpet; Gerald Hayes, Alto Sax; Benito Gonzalez, piano; Ronnie Burrage, Drums
Friday, May 07, 2010, 8:30 p.m.
Tribeca Performing Arts Center
Borough of Manhattan Community College
199 Chambers Street
New York City, New York, 10007
$25/ $15 seniors & students
Show will be preceded by interview session with Azar Lawrence, Patricia Ali, and moderated by Willard Jenkins
7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m
For additional information, please visit: http://www.furthermorerecordings.com and www.azarlawrence.com