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Erik Lawrence: Play What You Feel

Saxophonist talks about the Honey Ear Trio, Levon Helm and the legacy of his father Arnie Lawrence

Erik Lawrence
Erik Lawrence
Honey Ear Trio, with ,Rene Hart, Allison Miler and Erik Lawrence
Teresa Williams, Howard Johnson, Levon Helm and Erik Lawrence
Teresa Williams, Howard Johnson, Levon Helm and Erik Lawrence (photo: Paul LaRaia)

As the son of noted jazz saxophonist Arnie Lawrence, you might think that Erik Lawrence was raised with a mouthpiece in place of a pacifier, but the saxophonist and co-leader of the Honey Ear Trio says that his father waited at least a few years before indoctrinating him and his siblings into the world of music and jazz. “There were four kids in our family,” explains Lawrence, “and when each one of us turned 5, he had this little curved soprano saxophone and he’d teach us how to play the saxophone, like other kids would be taught how to play ball or ride a bike. I just stuck with it.” Lawrence’s sister, Marya, is a working jazz singer living in New York City, and his two other siblings also play music, though not professionally.

The saxophonist indeed stuck with it. As one-third of the cooperative Honey Ear Trio, along with bassist Rene Hart and drummer Allison Miller, Lawrence is attempting to reinvent the saxophone trio format while holding down a chair in the horn section of drummer Levon Helm’s band. Lawrence has been playing with Helm for several years-in the studio, on the road and at home in Helm’s unique combination of house concert and R&B revue at his barn in Woodstock, N.Y. It’s a balancing act that the 49-year-old saxophonist takes on with a passion nurtured by a supportive musical family.

His Father’s Son

Lawrence says that despite that early introduction and his father’s reputation as a jazz educator, much of his musical learning was on his own. “My dad was a real natural musician,” says Lawrence. “When he taught me how to play, he put the horn in my mouth and he taught me how to blow the notes and what the notes were. And then he said, ‘Go play what you feel.’ I’ve always done that. I just assumed that’s what you did. Over the course of time, I did learn how to play the right notes, if there are such things.”

Nonetheless, there were some lessons to be learned from a father immersed in the jazz scene. “The greatest learning I [received] from him was the influence. I was always around the music. I have pictures of me sitting on Clark Terry’s lap when I was 8 years old. My dad does have a reputation of being a great teacher, but I think my learning was different because I was the only one in my family who wasn’t natural at picking up an instrument. It didn’t come that easily to me. I think that was frustrating to him. It made me all the more determined, especially because my brother, who was a couple of years younger than me, was so talented. I didn’t want him to be better than me. I was aware of what I was supposed to hear – the bassline, the chords, the time and the melody – and I just set about to learning how to do it. I would say that I was self-taught and that I was a perfect example of a student of my father’s. I think he was frustrated that things didn’t come naturally to me that he didn’t really know how to teach me. But I got there through determination. I don’t think I would be a musician otherwise if I didn’t have to work hard at it.”

Talented offspring aside, perhaps Arnie Lawrence’s greatest legacy in modern jazz is the steady stream of gifted jazz players from Israel. Back in 1997, the senior Lawrence started the International Center for Creative Music in Jerusalem. He was dedicated to not only bringing jazz to Israel, but also to bringing Israeli jazz musicians to the U.S. scene. Although Lawrence died in 2005, his son is often reminded of the impact of his father’s work as a veritable pied piper of jazz in the Middle East. “Israel has always turned out really fine musicians – both classical and jazz and folk. They’re great technicians and theorists. What he brought it was that he started a school teaching improvised music. He just taught people to improvise and on a very high level. I would say that most of the great Israeli-born jazz musicians came out of that tradition. I don’t think a month goes by where I don’t hear from somebody on Facebook or at a club, where they give me a hug because I’m family. It used to be [older] guys in the jazz clubs greeting me and hugging me because of my dad, now it’s Israeli kids.”

Honey Ear Trio

For his part, Lawrence is most excited about the Honey Ear Trio, whose debut album Steampunk Serenade was released last week on the Foxhaven label. The members of the group have been playing in various configurations for the last five to six years. “Basically, every time we had a situation to play together, we would. We have a natural and wonderful synergy and I think it’s based on a really interesting chemistry where we trade off on the traditional roles with time, chords and melody. There’s a certain trust there. There’s one tune where the bass player [Rene Hart] plays the melody and there are certain tunes where we’re very liquid with the rhythm feel.”

The legacy of the trio format of saxophone, bass and drums, sans a chordal instrument, is a powerful and heavy one that Lawrence is acutely aware of. “I’ve been playing in the trio format ever since I heard Sonny Rollins’ Live at the Village Vanguard and every other sax trio recording. I love the freedom of it. But in some ways it’s more challenging and more structured than playing with a chordal player or another horn player, because you have to be defined and certain about where you’re going and how you’re going to complete your thoughts or how you’re going to tie them together. This album is really interesting because we’ve introduced electronics and sampling, and that becomes another player in the band. ”

Although he sees the Honey Ear Trio as more than a saxophone trio, Lawrence is true connoisseur of that sub-genre. “There is a Dewey Redman album, Tarik, with Ed Blackwell and Malachi Favors that I love. And the Joe Henderson ones are favorites of mine. Sonny influenced me that way. I’m not primarily a tenor player, though on this record I played mostly tenor. But I also play alto, soprano and baritone, and I can’t say which I play primarily. It’s interesting that the tenor has a great voice for the trio setting with an acoustic bass.”

Lawrence sees the saxophone trio as something evolving from the groundwork laid by Coltrane and Rollins. “If you go back to 1968 and compare it with today, you’re going to be demoralized because back then there were so many amazing tenor and saxophone players. Besides Coltrane and Rollins, you had Pharoah Sanders, Booker Ervin, Dewey Redman, Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman … the list goes on and on and it doesn’t get any weaker. Everybody had a voice. Everybody had something to say. Everybody was doing their own thing. That was the lesson I learned from those guys. Trane said, ‘Hey, let’s see how far we can go.’ If there’s a lesson, it’s that.”

In the Band

Another group that came along around that same time, albeit in a different genre, also changed the face of American music. The Band, with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, blended all sorts of roots music styles into a distinctive mix that could be called Americana before there was such a thing. The group, perhaps best known for its relationship with Bob Dylan and its FM radio hits “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” broke up in 1976, as documented in Martin Scorcese’s iconic concert film The Last Waltz. Drummer Helm has been keeping that group’s music in the public eye with his recent albums and nearly constant live performances. Lawrence has been playing in the horn section of Helm’s band for several years. Besides playing material from the Band repertoire, Helm’s group plays a cross-section of blues, R&B, country and rock, with a swinging horn section of Lawrence, Howard Johnson, Steven Bernstein, Jay Collins and Clark Gayton.

Although he has been playing with Helm for much of the last six or seven years, Lawrence says that his involvement with the drummer and his music started over a decade earlier. “I used to be neighbors with John Simon who produced The Band’s records and many other great records. He loved my playing. In 1993, when Bill Clinton was first inaugurated, they brought up Arkansas’ other favorite son, Levon Helm, to play. John was enlisted to fill in the band so he invited me. It was one of those life-changing gigs that cost me money to do.”

Interestingly, having grown up on jazz and funk, Lawrence was not particularly a big fan of The Band and its music and so he was not cowed by their stature in the rock community. “I’d met plenty of famous musicians and performers since I was a kid, so when John told me where to meet the bus and to say hello to Garth, Rick, Richard Bell, Jim Weider, Randy Ciarlante and Butch Dener, I just treated them like folks, musician folks. I was not awestruck.”

For fans of that group, it should be no surprise that multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson immediately connected with the young jazz man. “Garth asked me what horn players I listened to and I told him Ben Webster was a huge influence. He reached into his bag and pulled out a beautifully hand-rendered transcription of ‘Cottontail’ and we were instantly friends. All of those guys were great. Levon had driven down beforehand and met the bus when we got to DC. ‘Where’s Jack?’ was the first thing he said. Evidently he had met Jack DeJohnette the previous week who had agreed to come down and play, they even had a third drum kit set up on the stage, only somehow no one told Jack where to meet the bus! Dylan played, Dr. John, Steven Stills and Vassar Clements all played. The music blew my mind!”

The gig with Helm evolved from a generous offer the saxophonist made to help the drummer and his bandmates. “Most of the guys in the Band had fallen into hard times, and two of them [Richard Manuel and Rick Danko] aren’t with us anymore. Garth had lost his house. I had moved to Vermont and I called their manager and said, ‘I know Levon is in trouble and lost his voice to throat cancer. If I’m free, I will come and play for him for nothing.’ I just wanted him to know that his friends were there for him. A few years after that, they started doing those ‘Rambles,’ and they called me for that. I was probably the first horn player in the regular band. Now it’s five horn players.”

When I ask Lawrence what it’s like for a jazz guy to play those iconic rock tunes, he reiterates that the Band weren’t part of his musical DNA. “I grew up listening to jazz. I didn’t listen to Hendrix until I was 25. Then when I was 28 I was playing with Buddy Miles. I also listened a lot to funk and blues. I am sure I heard the Band, but I didn’t have the typical kid growing up and listening to rock and roll experience. But once I got it, I really appreciated it. There’s something that’s organic about the way that he makes his music feel that permeates everybody.

“My first trip to Europe was with Sonny Sharrock a few years before he died. He was doing this crazy doo-wop thing, where he still played the way he did … before that he was with a street corner group with his brother and friends. So he hired those guys and me as a saxophone player to cross the line between modern avant-garde jazz and the old guys. We did this concert and when we looked at the side of the stage, all these super hip progressive free-jazz players were line dancing. And I realized that there’s something organically rooted in everything that everybody plays. You listen to Ornette and you hear the blues and it’s the same blues that Levon adopted, because he grew up seven miles from the King Biscuit Flour show.”

Lessons Learned

Watching Lawrence perform in the horn section of Helm’s band, it’s clear that he’s having a good time with the arrangements and music. “The thing that keeps everyone in Levon’s band is that, I’m not comparing them as far as greatness, but it reminds me of the Ellington band where everybody in that band is a virtuoso and don’t really get to play exactly like themselves. But they subsume themselves to the music and they’re perfectly happy doing it.”

He also gets to play tunes that the audience is excited to hear, such that they start singing the opening verse without so much as a cue. “I can’t help feeling that I’ve learned something about the rhythm and I’ve tried to bring that into my own music. I still get chills every time I play ‘Ophelia.’ I have to admit that it’s a thrill to stand in front of anywhere from 200 to 60,000 people and play music, when you’re used to playing in jazz clubs most often for far fewer.”

And it’s not just the numbers. Lawrence also loves the way that Helm’s audience is there for the performer, in part because they grew up with his music and in part because they know of his struggle with throat cancer. “The musicians and the audience are fully engaged. You don’t need to do a lot of drugs like you do at some rock shows from bands of that era. Levon has always said that he wanted to do music for everybody, for little kids and for old people. Not a psychedelic experience.”

Lawrence says that even though the music he plays with Helm is entirely different from what the jazz he plays with the Honey Ear Trio, his approach is unchanged. “The thing that’s the same is that my intention in music is to tell stories. I feel like that’s something I learned from my father, because he had a wild improvisational thing but then he played with Doc Severinsen. And if you listen to it, he sounds the same. I always thought that would be an amazing thing – to craft your style so that you could do that. That is true of my playing and same with the other guys in the [Helm] horn section. I can hear one note and I know it’s them. ”

There’s plenty to learn from working with a drummer like Helm, Lawrence acknowledges. “I’ve been really lucky because I’ve played with a lot of great drummers, including Chico Hamilton, Buddy Miles and Levon. Each one of them had an incredible beat and an incredible way of tending to the feel of the music and playing to the song, more so than just playing a drum pattern. And someone like Allison carries on that tradition, except that we could go anywhere with Allison. The time is never lost and the feel is never lost.”

Playing Their Hearts Out

Lawrence is looking ahead with material he’s composed for both projects. “I’ve been writing songs and hopefully we’ll record another record with Levon. These songs have been strongly influenced by Levon, but I don’t know whether he’ll use them or I’ll figure out a way to organically incorporate them into a creative project of my own. I’ve also been writing songs that to me sound classic and that I love to play. I have a working quartet and we play together a lot. I’d like to record them. That would be more of a straight-ahead jazz thing with Rene Hart, Ben Perowsky and Rob Reich.

The Honey Ear Trio has been performing shows connected to the release of the album, and Lawrence notices the difference when the group is gigging. “It was amazing to do six gigs in 10 days. I can’t tell you how infrequently that sort of thing happens. Back in the days when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, they played for three or six months at one club and they sounded like it. And now we’re very skilled, but we cannot pretend that we sound like we’ve been playing together for the last three months. I was pining that for six months it would be 1954 again.

“One of the gifts I’ve gotten from playing with Levon is to bring this beautiful music that everybody’s dying to hear to all these different places and all these people are so excited to hear it. It’s one of the joys of traveling as a musician is bringing your gifts to some place that you always wanted to be – to have them appreciate the music and to have some sort of exchange with the people based on the fact that you really have something to offer. You’re not just some tourist. Hopefully we’ll get to do more of that with the Honey Ear Trio. We’re artists and we really love to play for people. ”

Here’s a video of a performance by Honey Ear Trio of “Eyjafjallajokull (Volcano Song) 1.”

Lawrence is aware that his work with Honey Ear is not going to get the same reaction that Levon Helm and his band get when they perform a song like “The Weight” with a famous rock star guesting on vocals. “What a musical performance is supposed to do is make you feel something. If somebody says that that’s not jazz or I don’t know what it is, but I like it, or I think I like that, at least they’re engaged. Jazz is the highest denominator art form. We’re not waiting for people to be ready to hear this stuff. We’re just presuming that some people are ready to receive it, whether they intellectually know it or not. The response has been great so far. You don’t have to pass a test to listen to it. Here’s the basic thing. We know what we’re doing. You give us a chance and we’re going to play our hearts out for you. And that’s what we do.”

Originally Published