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Azar Lawrence - Legacy and Music of John Coltrane Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    5
released:    2007
label:    Clarion Jazz
reviewer:    Scott Yanow

ImageIn the 1970s, Azar Lawrence seemed to have unlimited potential. As a child he sang and played piano and violin before switching to alto and eventually tenor and soprano. A very strong post-bop improviser, Lawrence made his greatest impact while a member of McCoy Tyner’s Quartet during 1973-77. He displayed a style that was influenced by John Coltrane but filled with his own youthful musical personality. Lawrence also worked with Horace Tapscott in Los Angeles and had stints with Clark Terry, Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, recording Black Magus with Davis. In addition, he led three albums of his own for Prestige during 1974-76 and made appearances on records by Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack and, in the 1980s, Earth, Wind and Fire.

But then Lawrence seemed to disappear. He actually continued playing but, for reasons that still remain unclear, he maintained a very low profile for a quarter century. He was an almost forgotten name in jazz, eligible for a “What Ever Happened To?” article.

Now Azar Lawrence has returned, and happily he is still very much in his musical prime. Sticking to tenor throughout this tribute to John Coltrane, Lawrence is joined by fellow tenor Edwin Bayard, pianist William Mennefield, bassist Dean Hulett and drummer Mark Lomax II. The most surprising aspect to the high-energy set is how close Lawrence sometimes sounds to Coltrane. While he does not copy Coltrane’s solos, Lawrence’s sound and some of his ideas stem directly from ‘Trane, particularly in the way he builds up his solos to a very intense level. Despite being 30 years older than he was when he was in Tyner’s group, Lawrence seems to have limitless energy and has certainly lost none of his intensity or passion. If anything, he is a more powerful player now, having built up another three decades’ worth of ideas, and his control of his horn is quite impressive.
The program begins with Lawrence being showcased on “I Want to Talk About You,” caressing the melody before building a lengthy and logical solo out of the theme. The ballad, though given a passionate interpretation, is just a warmup for what is to follow.

The uptempo blues “Mr. P.C.” adds Bayard to the music. His tone is a bit further from Coltrane’s than Lawrence’s, so the two tenors can be identified. They take lengthy solos, and join together at the piece’s conclusion. Although more than 16 minutes long, “Mr. P.C.” is brief compared to “Impressions,” which clocks in at nearly 27-and-a-half minutes. Both Lawrence and Bayard tear into the piece and neither runs out of ideas or passion, despite “Impressions” roaring for nearly a half-hour. Pianist Mennefield also takes his best solo of the set on this selection.

The fourth and final song is “My Favorite Things,” which became Coltrane’s trademark tune. Surprisingly neither Lawrence nor Bayard switch to soprano (which ‘Trane always played on the song), but they definitely recapture his spirit in their improvisations. The rhythm section also brings back the sound of Coltrane’s classic quartet, which had pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. Drummer Lomax comes the closest to emulating his predecessor but that is because Jones’ brand of polyrhythms perfectly fits this music.

Although not an innovative session, the music on this CD succeeds at its purpose, paying a loving and stimulating tribute to John Coltrane. And it is very good to have Azar Lawrence back on a jazz recording again. He was missed.

Even if it were not for the occasional crowd noise and applause, it would be obvious that this was a live session. Occasionally the saxophonists are slightly off mike, while the drums are usually louder than the piano. The sound is listenable but not flawless. While the sound quality will not thrill audiophiles, it certainly will not scare jazz fans away.

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