Overdue Ovation: Azar Lawrence Speaks of Working for Miles, McCoy, Elvin—and God

Overdue Ovation: Azar Lawrence Speaks of Working for Miles, McCoy, Elvin—and God

Right here’s one thing excellent about talking with saxophonist/composer Azar Lawrence proper after he’s clicked off from digital Sunday church companies. Still dwelling within the Los Angeles of his delivery, Lawrence, who’ll flip 70 this November, maintains a devoutness to the spirit of the Lord—be it online or in a particular person, when pandemics subside—that’s as reverent as his dedication to jazz. 

Listeners may need to get away of this from the soulful slate of chief albums that Lawrence has launched since 1974, along with top-tier sideman gigs for Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and extra (to say nothing of his hit compositions for the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire). One might actually guess it from his run of Twenty-first-century discs, together with Speak the Word and Mystic Journey and going proper on by way of to this yr’s launch, New Sky. But in keeping with him, the facility of God has been shifting by way of Azar Lawrence since his earliest days, with earthquaking blessings masquerading as fortunate coincidence.

“God is certainly the foundation of my intentions in the creation of my music from the start,” Lawrence says quietly. “I have forever been an antenna for all universal vibrations in the symphony of life… And that which lifts us through those vibrations brings about healing. It’s all from above.”

This has been a part of Lawrence’s “mission” since childhood, when his piano-teaching, choir-leading mom led younger Azar by way of the paces of drumming, vocal classes, violin enjoying, and keyboards. “The octave of my voice dropped around the same time that a friend of my father’s brought an alto saxophone to the house,” he recollects of his love-at-first-sound, one which coincided together with his dad’s buy of a Selmer Mark VI. “My father made sure we had only the best.”

Although listening to John Coltrane at 13 ceaselessly tilted his whirl to the jazz idiom, Lawrence additionally performed with Muddy Waters, Ike & Tina Turner, Phyllis Hyman, and War, in addition to penning songs and enjoying keyboards for EW&F and Stanley Turrentine. “I finished this session for McCoy’s Sama Layuca album [in March 1974] when I ran right into Alphonse Mouzon, who was working in the studio next door and said that somebody wanted to see me,” he recollects. “Suddenly I heard Roberta Flack talking about me having played with Miles and McCoy… ‘Get that man a microphone,’ she said. Same thing happened with Marvin Gaye on his Here, My Dear album.”

Guided all the time by a “celestial hand,” Lawrence merely has the expertise and really feel for music generally, whereas holding jazz closest to his soul. “R&B and the blues, they’re a different mindset than jazz. I had the reading chops from having played violin. But I have that wide vocabulary, the tools, the knack to just get in there, and be myself in different incidences.” Another blessing, so it appears. 

Working with Coltrane stalwarts Tyner and Jones within the ’70s got here with its personal duties past jazz. “That’s the royal family,” Lawrence says lovingly of all musicians related to Trane. “I had only just met Elvin—hadn’t played a note together—when he was calling me his new saxophonist and handing me a plane ticket to go on tour. Elvin adopted me at age 19. McCoy? I always wanted to play with him. From a harmonic standpoint, my ear was in tune with Tyner. But it was only because a gig fell through with Elvin that I wound up playing with McCoy, sat in, and stayed. God’s hand again. Another sacred circumstance. The divine plan unfolding.”

Through his outdated pal, the just lately departed percussionist James Mtume, Lawrence even wound up enjoying with Miles Davis for a minute in 1974; you’ll be able to hear among the outcomes on the latter’s Dark Magus. “When I was playing with Elvin at the Vanguard, Mtume used to bring Miles around to see us, hanging by the front door just digging the scene. They were close, Mtume and Miles. Miles didn’t go out much, but he went out with James. Mtume’s the reason I played with Miles. He was the hook-up man.”

With three back-to-back groove-oriented albums as a frontrunner on Prestige—1974’s Bridge into the New Age, 1975’s Summer Solstice, and 1976’s People Moving—Lawrence (switching off, like Coltrane, between tenor and soprano) reached an early peak of his funky powers. Work with Gene Harris and Freddie Hubbard quickly adopted. Then, within the early ’80s, his abilities as a composer and synthesizer participant got here to the fore on EW&F’s Powerlight and Turrentine’s Home Again. “After having watched the piano be used forever as a tool of expression from my mother on down to McCoy, I found that I had this knack for writing songs beyond jazz,” Lawrence says. “My motto was ‘a hit song a day keeps you on the way.’ I was very proud, in particular, of writing for Stanley. That was really something. I had a great relationship too with [EW&F founder] Maurice White—a lot of late-night, after-hours sessions, talking at his house about spirituality and metaphysics. He could hear and sense what I was doing immediately.” 

In the mid-’80s, Lawrence got here out with a fourth album below his personal identify, the smoother-than-silk-degrees Shadow Dancing, and joined in on pianist Henry Butler’s debut Fivin’ Around. That was the final the music world would hear from him for almost 20 years, nevertheless, because the saxophonist took himself out of the sport because of the pains and strains of cocaine dependancy. The Lawrence of at present doesn’t shrink from discussing the well being struggles he skilled then.

“Jesus went through 40 days and 40 nights. I went through my trials. You just never know how powerful is a substance with which you are dealing. It had me by my ear. The question always came up, though, of ‘Why stop when I’m having all that fun?’ That’s what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t all that. As I was trying to phase out of addiction, I asked my friends, ‘Does it matter if you’re kicking your own ass, or if somebody else is doing it?’ No. I didn’t want my ass kicked at all.”

“I asked my friends, ‘Does it matter if you’re kicking your own ass, or if somebody else is doing it?’ No. I didn’t want my ass kicked at all.”

With self-perseverance and the assistance of the MusiCares charity, Lawrence got here again in 2006 and stayed again, sober: teaming with fellow saxophonist Edwin Bayard’s quartet for a dwell Legacy and Music of John Coltrane album, main a modal-focused quartet for 2008’s Speak the Word, and hiring trumpeter Eddie Henderson and drummer Rashied Ali (in his closing recording classes) for the world music-centric Mystic Journey in 2010, to call simply three examples. “The ongoing thread of spirituality from my start continued on,” Lawrence says.

New Sky, although usually Coltranesque, soars in a different way than all of Lawrence’s previous work. For that, he credit by no means having misplaced contact together with his self-discipline in meditation and religious practices. He additionally praises his ensemble: keyboardist John Beasley, bassist Sekou Bunch, drummer Tony Austin, percussionist Munyungo Jackson, guitarist and album engineer James Saez, together with occasional co-writer/producer Tracy Hannah. “It took a village to get through this,” he laughs in regards to the new album.

Written and recorded through the pandemic, New Sky takes its cues from the quiet-storm R&B of his previous and his devotion to Trane, in addition to the worldwide groove of Mystic Journey, however blends them into one thing recent and frothy on holy songs such because the concluding “Revelation.” Combine this freshly launched music with a brand new dwell ensemble, the Azar Lawrence Experience, and the spirits inside are firing on all cylinders.

“My new album is a conglomerate of all of my high points in this journey,” Lawrence says. “There was a golden thread throughout all of them—especially People Moving, where I grew so sure of myself to be able to express my funkier side… I had to go through a growing period, though, a cocooning period, as my life has been transmuted. Things are growing for me, old things are coming up and new sides of me starting to emerge,” he provides with an audible smile. “I see and hear how all things within and without me are flowering in the present and the future. It’s a very nice sensation, spiritually and sonically.” 

Recommended Listening

McCoy Tyner: Enlightenment (Milestone, 1973)

Woody Shaw: The Moontrane (Milestone, 1974)

Elvin Jones: New Agenda (Vanguard, 1975)

Azar Lawrence: People Moving (Prestige, 1976)

Miles Davis: Dark Magus (Columbia, 1977)

Henry Butler: Fivin’ Around (Impulse!, 1986)

Azar Lawrence: Prayer for My Ancestors (Furthermore, 2009)

Azar Lawrence: Enlightened within the New Age



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