Azar Lawrence is rightfully regarded as a John Coltrane disciple. After all, he’s a versatile postbop traditionalist who can play with a rugged or rich or incandescent tone on both soprano and tenor saxophones, and he’s piqued by the spiritual nature of African and Indian music. He was also a member of ensembles led by the most prominent Coltrane alumni, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones (not to mention his work in the Dark Magus edition of Miles Davis’ band).
But Elementals demonstrates that, at 65, Lawrence has sculpted that Coltrane-oriented goodness into the mosaic of his own mature artistry. On the title track, for example, his brawny, metallic tenor solos harken toward Dexter Gordon more than Trane, but they remain inimitably Azar Lawrence in the way he carouses through phrases like a nimble freight train. His torrid soprano modulations on “Sing to the World” (by his band’s pianist, Benito Gonzalez) delightfully push the contours of the tune’s rock-solid melody. There is also a bossa nova (“La Bossa”), a samba (“Koko”) and a polyrhythmic “African Chant,” all taken at an accelerated pace that is Lawrence’s preferred meter. The wah-wah, in-the-pocket funk of “Solar Winds” is a nod to both his stint with Miles and his R&B roots (most prominently Earth Wind & Fire and Deniece Williams). The brief closer, the Eastern-drenched “Karma Sutra,” with Joe Blocker on tambura, ironically resurrects memories of Trane more than any other song.
From the moment he was Tyner’s saxophonist of choice in the early ’70s, Lawrence has been a horn player of musical and conceptual substance. His return to a steady jazz output in the past decade has been a blessing, doubled here by his recruitment of drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith away from Smith’s comfortable perch on talk-show bandstands. With Lawrence and Smith stoking the fire stride-by-stride as Gonzalez issues chords like a real McCoy, nobody should mind that the lone ballad in the 10-song outing is also the lone standard—a cover of Rodgers & Hart’s “It’s Easy to Remember.”