There’s something perfect about speaking with saxophonist/composer Azar Lawrence right after he’s clicked off from virtual Sunday church services. Still dwelling in the Los Angeles of his birth, Lawrence, who’ll turn 70 this November, maintains a devoutness to the spirit of the Lord—be it online or in person, when pandemics subside—that’s as reverent as his dedication to jazz.
Listeners might have gotten a sense of this from the soulful slate of leader albums that Lawrence has released since 1974, in addition to top-tier sideman gigs for Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and more (to say nothing of his hit compositions for the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire). One could certainly guess it from his run of 21st-century discs, including Speak the Word and Mystic Journey and going right on through to this year’s release, New Sky. But according to him, the power of God has been moving through Azar Lawrence since his earliest days, with earthquaking blessings masquerading as lucky 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 part of Lawrence’s “mission” since childhood, when his piano-teaching, choir-leading mother led young Azar through the paces of drumming, vocal lessons, violin playing, 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 recalls of his love-at-first-sound, one that coincided with his dad’s purchase of a Selmer Mark VI. “My father made sure we had only the best.”
Although hearing John Coltrane at 13 forever tilted his whirl to the jazz idiom, Lawrence also played with Muddy Waters, Ike & Tina Turner, Phyllis Hyman, and War, as well as penning songs and playing 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 recalls. “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 always by a “celestial hand,” Lawrence simply has the talent and feel for music in general, while 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 seems.
Working with Coltrane stalwarts Tyner and Jones in the ’70s came with its own responsibilities beyond jazz. “That’s the royal family,” Lawrence says lovingly of all musicians connected 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 old friend, the recently departed percussionist James Mtume, Lawrence even wound up playing with Miles Davis for a minute in 1974; you can hear some of the results 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 leader 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 soon followed. Then, in the early ’80s, his skills as a composer and synthesizer player came 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 came out with a fourth album under his own name, the smoother-than-silk-degrees Shadow Dancing, and joined in on pianist Henry Butler’s debut Fivin’ Around. That was the last the music world would hear from him for nearly 20 years, however, as the saxophonist took himself out of the game due to the pains and strains of cocaine addiction. The Lawrence of today doesn’t shrink from discussing the health struggles he experienced 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 help of the MusiCares charity, Lawrence came back in 2006 and stayed back, sober: teaming with fellow saxophonist Edwin Bayard’s quartet for a live Legacy and Music of John Coltrane album, leading a modal-focused quartet for 2008’s Speak the Word, and hiring trumpeter Eddie Henderson and drummer Rashied Ali (in his final recording sessions) for the world music-centric Mystic Journey in 2010, to name just three examples. “The ongoing thread of spirituality from my start continued on,” Lawrence says.
New Sky, though often Coltranesque, soars differently than all of Lawrence’s past work. For that, he credits never having lost touch with his discipline in meditation and spiritual practices. He also praises his ensemble: keyboardist John Beasley, bassist Sekou Bunch, drummer Tony Austin, percussionist Munyungo Jackson, guitarist and album engineer James Saez, along with occasional co-writer/producer Tracy Hannah. “It took a village to get through this,” he laughs about the new album.
Written and recorded during the pandemic, New Sky takes its cues from the quiet-storm R&B of his past and his devotion to Trane, as well as the global groove of Mystic Journey, but blends them into something fresh and frothy on holy songs such as the concluding “Revelation.” Combine this freshly released music with a new live ensemble, the Azar Lawrence Experience, and the spirits within 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 adds 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.”
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)