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Azar Lawrence doesn’t recall specifically when and where this incident occurred, but the memory’s stuck with him all these years later. Sometime during the five whirlwind years in the ’70s, when he recorded and toured extensively as McCoy Tyner’s saxophonist, the two were hanging out after a show somewhere in Europe. A fan approached the legendary pianist and asked if he would sign a book of scales that was popular at the time — presuming, of course, that Tyner was familiar with it.
“McCoy was happy to sign it, but the truth was, he had never seen the book of scales because the contents were geared towards musicians who put their technique in the forefront and focus more on their technical skills,” says Lawrence, who during this era played an integral role on several of Tyner’s most acclaimed recordings, including 1973’s Enlightenment, a live recording from the Montreux Jazz Festival. “He and I were alike in that we always desired to hear the expression of the soul and let the soul expression be so great that the techniques rose up to meet that expression.”
From his sideman work with Elvin Jones, Woody Shaw, Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, through his solo albums both in the ’70s (Bridge Into the New Age, Summer Solstice) and 2000s (Prayer for My Ancestors, Mystic Journey) and ventures into the R&B world with Marvin Gaye and Earth, Wind & Fire, Lawrence has always anchored his music in freedom of expression tied to his deep spirituality.
In those early days, he practiced Serapis Meditation — based on the harmony and discipline passed down from ascended master Serapis Bey — with Alfred Ligon at the Aquarian Spiritual Center in Los Angeles, an offshoot of Ligon’s Aquarian Bookshop, the country’s oldest continuously operated Black-owned bookstore. In recent years, the saxophonist has expressed that energy at Michael Beckwith’s Agape International Spiritual Center. As a practitioner of Egyptian Ankh meditation, and breathing meditation techniques taught by Beckwith, he used the first year of the pandemic to listen to his inner voice for spiritual inspiration.
“From the start,” Lawrence says, “Michael has been asking us, ‘Who are you going to be when the pandemic is over?’”
For the saxophonist, the stylistically eclectic, eminently grooving answer can be found on his latest release, New Sky (Trazar). Over the course of 10 dynamic tracks, the album unfolds like a post-pandemic spiritual guide, its songs building a narrative that inspires hope of spiritual renewal and revival. During the past year and a half, many artists have explained that the COVID-19 lockdown opened the door to projects that might not have happened otherwise, sometimes simply because most musicians were grounded from touring and were thus available to contribute. Others made special connections with fan communities that led to works inspired by and dedicated to those new friendships.
Yet, by creating a set of music that by both willful intention and a sense of divine channeling aims to cultivate a spirit of transformation, a renewed sense of purpose and a more profound appreciation for the sanctity and fragility of life, Lawrence’s collection may be the first to use music as a spiritual and emotional roadmap to a meaningful way forward.
“The whole basis of expression throughout my career has been about delving in one way or another towards opening up the curiosity of individuals seeking new knowledge and gleaning how music can be a healing tool,” he says. “New Sky is a reference to the unique cleansing that’s been happening these past few years. Many are feeling a sense of newness that occurs after normal routines have been shut down. We approach life differently, and there are so many exciting new possibilities that truly, the sky is the limit. We are embracing new energies on a day-to-day basis.”
True to his aesthetic of music being a manifestation of the spirit, Lawrence, 68, is characteristically bold about connecting a soaring, funky high-energy sax-and-electric guitar-driven fusion jam like the opener “All In Love” with a new age of enlightenment. The concept comes from one of the benefits of the Aquarian Age ideal, in which there is an embrace of universal love and a wider acceptance of diverse races and spiritual paths. Various newsletters of the Aquarian Age community talk about the concept of “harmony through conflict,” which is based on traditional esoteric teachings. In line with that, Lawrence sees the creativity that came to him during the creation of New Sky as a result of the challenges, struggles and necessary adaptations presented during this unprecedented time.
“It’s a result of our positioning as we move from one energy level to the next, where we feel both the new energy and the one we’re leaving taking hold,” the saxophonist says. “During this so- called crisis, as the old crystalized thought forms dissolved and these new energies were taking hold, we find ourselves in a space where new creative possibilities can thrive. Though being sequestered at home may have meant many material things were less accessible, there was also more time to be alone with our thoughts — and for some of us, that meant a great opportunity to meditate and get in touch with our higher selves via that voice within.”
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Fans of Lawrence whose spirituality perhaps stops at listening to The 5th Dimension’s “The Age of Aquarius” can enjoy New Sky as a purely secular and visceral experience tying together the expansive array of genres he’s explored throughout his career in a focused manner. “The whole point of New Sky, as with any recording, is the expression of music that touches people,” he says. “I’m expressing a spiritual idea as the underlying concept but not trying to force it on anyone. We hope that the inner feeling people get when they listen is a sense of being uplifted. Call it what you want, but when people get to the end of the record, the goal is to put a smile on their face. It’s an expression of pure love, coming from the heart, and that’s something the world needs more than ever. Any ear who pays attention gets a hug.”
The “we” Lawrence refers to is the dynamic multicultural ensemble that helps bring his overarching vision to life, including keyboardists John Beasley and Nduduzo Makhathini; bassist Sekou Bunch; drummer Tony Austin; percussionist Munyungo Jackson; harpist Destiny Muhammad; and guitarists James Saez, Greg Poree and Gregory “GMOE” Moore.
A spirited samba vibe infuses both “Peace and Harmony” and the title track. The latter features vocalist Lynne Fiddmont, who turns all those aforementioned possibilities into sultry, heartfelt invitations.“Ain’t No Doubt About It” moves like a dance between Lawrence’s fiery tenor and the hypnotic, R&B/hip-hop vocals of Calesha “Bre-Z” Murray, while “Just Because of You” is a funky, old-school soul-jazz-flavored romp featuring Oren Waters of the renowned singing group The Waters. Lawrence is in prime Coltrane-influenced mode on the lively waltz “Birds Are Singing,” the whimsical flow and metaphoric title of which — referring to the way birds sing loudly after natural disasters — perfectly represent the album’s forward-thinking aesthetic.
As a colorful through line bridging his spiritually inclined ’70s output with the 2020s, Lawrence re-imagines two previously released tracks which musically and thematically fit the spirit of New Sky. The first is another Brazilian romp, “From the Point of Love” (from his second album, 1975’s Summer Solstice), which had been a fan favorite in his live performances over the years; and the second, “Revelation,” takes us to church with an artful blend of earthy rumbling and a haunting transcendent sax melody. It features a dramatic, Tyner-influenced piano solo by the South African-born Makhathini and the otherworldly harp of Muhammad.
“Revelation” was chosen as the boisterous coda for the collection based on Lawrence’s memory of playing it with Makhathini in front of 3,000 people at South Africa’s Joy of Jazz Festival in 2018. Before COVID-19 darkened the world’s doorstep, the audience enthusiastically chanted, “Let’s spread love around the world,” a simple slogan that is even more essential now.
The saxophonist has never been one to be confined by genres. Throughout his five-decade-plus career, he’s lent his instrumental and songwriting acumen to soul and R&B artists such as Chuck Jackson, Roberta Flack, Skip Scarborough, Marvin Gaye, Phyllis Hyman and Earth, Wind & Fire. He was also celebrated for his 2007 tribute The Legacy and Music of John Coltrane and the 2018 straightahead jazz set Elementals, which prompted one critic to proclaim, “Azar Lawrence sounds more like John Coltrane than John Coltrane ever did.”
Lawrence was all over the musical map from the get-go. His training at Los Angeles’ Dorsey High School Jazz Workshop prepared him for gigs with Horace Tapscott's Pan Afrikan Arkestra and a weekly spot with George Cables, Candy Finch, Larry Gales and Woody Shaw at L.B. West, a local club. Before long, he was tapped to perform with Ike and Tina Turner, the soul-funk outfit Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, and WAR during their early Eric Burdon days.
The saxophonist has the perfect anecdote for the way his effortless genre-hopping can surprise even seasoned, seen-it-all musicians. A partnership with Chuck Jackson and Patryce Banks led to songs for Irene Carr, Stanley Turrentine, Ren Woods and others. “Then I met Maurice White by chance one night at the movies,” he says. “Our original connection was sharing spiritual ideas. He had just gotten back from taking Earth, Wind & Fire to Egypt and wanted to talk to me about pyramids. It was my chance to tell him I had some new songs, but I could tell he wasn’t all that interested. He saw me as the Coltrane guy who played with jazz greats. He called later at 1 a.m. and invited me over to play my stuff. All of a sudden, that Coltrane wall came down and he realized I was a fellow funkateer. He liked what he heard so much that I got three co-writes with him on EWF’s Powerlight album, including the single ‘Spread Your Love.’ We never did get around to talking about the pyramids that night!”
While a drug addiction contributed to a long hiatus through much of the 1990s, Lawrence has returned with a renewed creative fervor and sense of purpose. The past 15 years have seen him honoring and building on the legacies of his musical heroes.
And yet, for all the icons he’s worked with and been influenced by, Lawrence will always credit his mother, Ima, a music teacher and gifted pianist, as his greatest inspiration. His musical journey began at the age of 3, when he would sit beside her in their Baldwin Hills, California, home and she would lovingly mentor him on her instrument. He also recalls that when she would put him down for a nap, she would practice Bach and Chopin. She always wanted one of her two sons to be a professional musician, and Lawrence jokes that, “I got the short straw.” He and his brother Vincent Hollier both started on violin; Vincent was first chair in the USC junior orchestra and Lawrence was in the second at age 5.
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“I think my dad was the facilitator to get me on violin, and it was through him that I found my calling as a saxophonist,” he says. “We had a baby grand in the den that opened to the outdoor pool and we would all listen to music as we enjoyed the outdoors. He had a friend from work who came by one day with a flute, and another day he brought an alto sax and began playing. I was 12, and when I heard him play, that was it. I was tired of being made fun of carrying the violin case home anyway. While my dad’s friend gets the credit for my switch to sax, the eclectic nature of my future career was due to [my mother’s] driving me and my brother around with the jazz station on. That’s where I first heard Lee Morgan and Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things.’ She’d leave us in the car while doing quick errands, and Vincent and I put on the R&B station, and then she’d switch it right back.”