Life is a journey. Some would say that our ultimate objective is to find our truth, our function in the grand scheme of things. Many philosophers and prophets have toiled in efforts to discover life’s meaning and the truths of the universe. Though the means and results vary, the seeker will inevitably go on his own path, simply through living, to discover his own truth.
Saxophonist Azar Lawrence has been forging his path through music for the past four decades. He has become one of the principal voices of the post-Coltrane age of jazz, a spiritual and musical descendent yet one still forging his own distinct voice and style. Lawrence’s new recording – The Seeker – is an album dedicated to those, like himself, who are on their path and the trailblazers who continue to light their way.
Lawrence’s journey began in his birthplace of Los Angeles, playing with Horace Tapscott’s community-centric Arkestra and onto R&B projects with Ike & Tina Turner, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and War. His jazz stars aligned after meeting drummer Elvin Jones at the age of twenty. The former Coltrane collaborator brought the young saxophonist to New York in 1973, where Lawrence lived and played with Jones as a member of the Jazz Machine.
From there, Lawrence became a member of McCoy Tyner’s ensemble, and a featured soloist with Miles Davis, most notably on Miles’s live recording from Carnegie Hall, Dark Magus. He also played with many other fantastic jazz musicians, most notably trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, and contemporary soul artists, such as Roberta Flack and Earth, Wind and Fire.
Lawrence’s own recordings from the 1970s have become classic examples of jazz and world influences meeting in a resoundingly modern and spiritually moving combination. He has maintained these strong influences in his music, trying like John Coltrane to create healing music for the world.
The opportunity to record The Seeker presented itself when Lawrence was booked to perform at Jazz Standard in New York City in December 2011. For the performance, the saxophonist wrote new material for an ensemble of stalwart, exemplary musicians.
Originally introduced by Kenny Garrett at a gig in Los Angeles, Venezuelan pianist Benito Gonzalez’s excellent McCoy Tyner inspired touch caught Lawrence’s ear and thus Gonzalez became a member of Lawrence’s regular ensemble, even appearing on the saxophonist’s most recent recording, Mystic Journey. Bassist Essiet Okon Essiet was introduced to Lawrence by Gonzalez and has become a regular member of his ensemble due to his outstanding blend of elements of his African origins and phenomenal bass technique.
Lawrence also recruited the great Nicholas Payton to share the front line, feeling that the trumpeter was the best choice, not only because of his beautiful sound, but also because he could best understand the concept of the music and bring his experience to bear. Rounding out the ensemble, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts was a perfect choice on drums, as his rhythmic ideas and choices were reminiscent of their mutual friend and mentor, Elvin Jones.
The recording begins with the eastern-tinged “Gandhi,” a powerful tribute to the Indian leader, who used his inner peace and resolve to inspire a nation through nonviolent resistance, and highlights the leader’s meditative tenor sax. The driving, modal “Lost Tribes of Lemuria” is a moving composition with a stately melody perfectly suited for the spiritually attuned population of the mythic lost continent of Lemuria. The title song is a well-paced feature for Lawrence’s soprano sax and Payton’s tremendous trumpet. Gonzalez’s “One More Time” is a feisty composition with a wonderful give and take between the pianist and the two horn players.
The program continues with the prayer-like “Rain Ballad,” with Lawrence’s swathes of tenor and Essiet’s bowed bass over a lush percussion from Watts. “Spirit Night” gives a sly nod to the great Pharoah Sanders while the ensemble plunges into a wonderfully evocative and meditative piece, featuring a lovely solo from Gonzalez. Not unlike the brightest entity amongst the stars, “Venus Rising” is a brilliant ensemble workout with strong performances from all, especially the raucous Watts on drums.
As one of the best to blend the elements of earth and the spirit through music, Azar Lawrence stands apart from his peers with his searing, passionate saxophone sound and brilliant compositional style. His new live recording, The Seeker, will stand as an important milestone in the ever-fascinating musical journey that Lawrence has taken to create healing music for the world.
released July 8, 2014
Azar Lawrence: tenor & soprano saxophones
Nicholas Payton: trumpet
Benito Gonzalez: piano
Essiet Okon Essiet: bass
Jeff "Tain" Watts: drums