AZAR LAWRENCE was born in Los Angeles in 1952 and his life as a burning tenor saxophonist has taken him into the heartlands of jazz, as well as deep into the world of soul, accompanying pioneering talents such as Ike and Tina Turner, Roberta Flack and Earth, Wind and Fire.
His impassioned sound, first inspired by that of Coltrane, was recognised by the community activist and piano maestro of Watts, Horace Tapscott, when he joined his Arkestra as a teenager.
Then he met the great drummer of the John Coltrane Quartet, Elvin Jones, who took him to New York in 1973 as a crucial member of his own band, the Jazz Machine.
He played with pianist McCoy Tyner (another Coltrane Quartet alumnus) on his burning 1974 album Atlantis, and with Miles Davis on his epochal live recording from New York’s Carnegie Hall in the same year, Dark Magus.
Since those ardent days Lawrence has had a much quieter jazz profile, but he comes powerfully to the fore again on his new album on the Sunnyside label, The Seeker, in the midst of a band of unmitigated talents.
The trumpeter is the New Orleansborn Nicholas Payton, veteran of a succession of key Verve albums of the ’90s, born in the same year that Lawrence made his cross-continental migration to New York, and the drummer is Jeff “Tain” Watts, born in Pittsburgh in 1960, who took fire in the early Wynton Marsalis bands.
The bassist is the Omaha, Nebraskaborn (in 1959) Essiet Okon Essiet, expulseman of Bobby Watson’s Horizon band and the pianist is the Venezuelan prodigy Benito Gonzalez.
The band’s album The Seeker bursts out of its New York City studio in December 2011.
Lawrence’s vehement timbre is immediately apparent from those 1973-4 sessions, as if it were the next day, the next impassioned cause, the next sonic earthquake.
When you look at the title’s opener it is simply called Gandhi, and rarely has he been depicted with so much fire.
Gonzalez rocks his keys and Payton’s solo is fraught with tension, agitation, beauty and excitation.
Lost Tribes of Lemuria has a march-like, almost anthemic theme with its narrative of a lost continent. Watts’s drums pound and throb behind Lawrence’s waywardly searching chorus and the brass defiance of Payton’s urgent solo, a horn pealing through the mist of loss, as a huge landmass and its people aching to be found and vindicated.
Lawrence blows out his album title tune on soprano saxophone with a Coltranish intensity as if his musical quest is in mid-journey and nowhere near completion. Payton begins reflectively, and as the rhythmic pace quickens he climbs, falls, soars, flies and plummets, with Essiet’s earthen pulse reminding him that his journey too is both real and mundane.
Gonzalez’s solo offers shared discovery and communality within this search of life.
One More Time is the Venezuelan’s composition; its Latin groove rousing the horns to new sonic areas.
Azar’s creative gusto and ascendant inventiveness and Payton playing low then on a soar of blistering notes, all-confident and full of poise.
Gonzalez changes the rhythm to a more relaxed, sauntering stride as the fivesome come home together.
Apart from One More Time, all the tunes are Lawrence’s, and Rain Ballad is the most evocative.
Its strong, elegiac melody gives full vent to the wondrous and incendiary beauty of his tenor sound and eloquence rarely heard since the days of Coltrane.
The slow, almost statuesque beginning to Spirit Night gradually quickens its pace until Gonzalez’s tender, skittering solo, with Essiet’s bass gently pulsing beneath him.
The album’s finale is Venus Rising. Payton’s lyrical chorus, full of light, flying high with lingering, translucent flames of sound is followed by a dashing Gonzalez solo before the sound fades.
Although there are five masterseekers here on this record, it is Azar who rises from the past now in his sixties and blowing like he blew 40 years ago with Tyner, Miles and Freddie Hubbard.
Where is he going next? What will this relentless searcher find and create?