Azar Lawrence: The Seeker

Jazz fans of a certain age who remember McCoy Tyner’s great 1973 album Enlightenment may have wondered what became of Azar Lawrence. He dropped off jazz radar for most of three decades, but he is back. The Seeker is his fifth record since 2007. He also plays in drummer-composer Franklin Kiermyer’s quartet on Further.

Lawrence has been compared to John Coltrane his whole working life, but he is not a replica. He plays Coltrane’s instruments but not his licks and patterns. Even Lawrence’s sound is a variant. On soprano saxophone he is somewhat more rounded, and has slightly more vibrato on tenor. What he shares with Coltrane is an intensity of passion that overwhelms everything in its path.

The Seeker hits like a sledgehammer from the opening track, “Gandhi.” Lawrence writes elemental declamatory anthems that serve as launchpads. Their titles convey his understanding of music as a spiritual quest: “Spirit Night,” “The Seeker,” “Venus Rising.” For all his fervor, there is logic and clarity in his onslaught of ideas. When he reenters for a second solo, like on “Gandhi,” he can jolt you out of your chair.

Benito Gonzalez, an emerging talent, plays piano on both albums. His relationship to Tyner is analogous to Lawrence’s Coltrane connection. Like Tyner, Gonzalez builds gigantic solos in towering blocks. But he is more impulsive and free.

The Seeker is a powerful album with a few issues. It was recorded live at Jazz Standard in New York. The fades at the ends of tracks, and announcements that don’t start until the fifth tune, disrupt the illusion of a live jazz event. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton sounds disconnected from Lawrence’s music, as if he came to play on a more conventional, less ferocious occasion.

Further is more unified and wilder. No genre of art stays new forever, but some forms are permanently revolutionary, such as the sublime sonic tempests of late Coltrane. It is the Coltrane of albums like Meditations to which Further pays tribute. Kiermyer’s drumming is maniacal, a continuous catharsis, and Lawrence and Gonzalez are caught up in it. “Bilad el-Sudan” opens in fierce melody and flies apart into soprano saxophone trills and hammering piano incantations. Lawrence whirls within Kiermyer’s rituals, blasting and shrieking, but his overall thrust is always forward, toward light and truth. Often, doors open. Crescendos become resolutions. Further is not for the faint of heart.