The Azar Lawrence Experience: Moving the People - 27 East

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The Azar Lawrence Experience: Moving the People

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Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence and his quintet perform at the Southampton Arts Center on February 17 as part of Hamptons Jazz Fest. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence and his quintet perform at the Southampton Arts Center on February 17 as part of Hamptons Jazz Fest. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence performs at Southampton Arts Center on February 17. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence performs at Southampton Arts Center on February 17. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence performs at Southampton Arts Center on February 17. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence performs at Southampton Arts Center on February 17. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence performs at Southampton Arts Center on February 17. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence performs at Southampton Arts Center on February 17. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence performs at Southampton Arts Center on February 17. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence performs at Southampton Arts Center on February 17. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence performs at Southampton Arts Center on February 17. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Jazz saxophonist Azar Lawrence performs at Southampton Arts Center on February 17. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Dan Ouellette on Feb 8, 2024

When Azar Lawrence teaches his music classes at UCLA, he has a lot to offer his students who have only listened to and read about jazz titans like McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones who were members of John Coltrane’s classic quartet. The Los Angeles-based tenor saxophonist provides a direct line to the jazz legacy from the 1960s by telling stories about his working relationships with many of the greats.

“I’ve been blessed with the lessons I learned from peak experiences throughout my life,” says Lawrence, who brings his quartet and guest to the Southampton Arts Center on Saturday, February 17, at 7 p.m., as part of the Hamptons Jazz Festival’s winter series celebrating Black History Month. “I was only 19 when Elvin asked me to play with him. I moved from my home in Los Angeles to New York. That lasted two and a half years.”

Lawrence was scheduled for a tour with Jones, but it was canceled. That gave the 21-year-old youngster an opportunity to see Tyner who was at the Village Vanguard for a week. Jones gave the pianist a heads up and arranged for Lawrence to sit in on one set.

“McCoy asked me to play a tune, and I was ready to stand up there with him in the fire,” he says. “It turned out good, and the rest, I hoped, would be history.”

A couple of weeks later, he got the magical call. “The phone rang and it was McCoy,” Lawrence says. “He asked if I would join him. I said yes, of course, and then after the call, I screamed at the top of my lungs. That gig lasted for five and a half years. We would talk while on tour about lots of different things. It was McCoy’s wisdom that taught me that even though each country we visited spoke different languages, they all understood what we were doing. Music is a universal language.”

Lawrence was grateful, but needed to understand why he had become the chosen one to replace an icon. “I asked Elvin and McCoy how can you play with me after playing with Trane,” he says. “They both said that I had the same sense of saxophone love coming through the music. They took care of me. They strengthened my confidence.”

Lawrence also worked with other former Coltrane band members, including his pianist/harpist wife Alice Coltrane and free jazz drummer Rashied Ali.

“I guess that makes me a member of the Coltrane royal family,” he says. “It’s a blessing and a way of keeping Trane alive. Miles Davis recognized that and said, ‘I haven’t heard a tenor saxophonist like you since John Coltrane.’ That further encouraged me. And when I moved from New York back to Los Angeles, another great master, Sonny Rollins, called me and told me I had to return. He said, ‘Where are you? We need you out here.’”

While Lawrence doesn’t emulate Coltrane’s bold, fiery style, he does embody the spirit of Trane to his music with his tenor strength, soulful lyricism and deep-seated groove. That’s fully present on his latest album, 2022’s New Sky (Trazer Records). On the percussion-spiced song “All in Love” he soars over the funky undergirding with his bold, melodious tenor lines. He also bobs and dances on tenor through “Ain’t No Doubt About It.”

Lawrence plans on filling his set list at Southampton Arts Center with New Sky music as well as new works he’s planning to record this summer. “I’m the composer as well as the saxophonist of the band,” he says. “I write 99 percent of the music we play.”

He has an impressive history of composing. Early on, he was a staff writer at Capital Records and Polygram Records. Then he became a songwriter for the jazz-funk saxophonist Stanley Turrentine (including his 1982 powerhouse Elektra recording Home Again) and DJ-friendly funk-jazz group Earth Wind & Fire on their million-selling Powerlight album.

Also on the Southampton song list will be a tune or two from Lawrence’s high-tempo soulful masterpiece “People Moving,” a 1976 recording on Prestige Records that was finally digitally released this year by Craft Recordings. At the time, it was often downplayed by the jazz police as fusion. Today, it sounds fresh and in sync with most of today’s hybrid jazz.

“I’m very happy that “People Moving” has gotten a new life,” says Lawrence. “That came out nearly 50 years ago. It’s just like the fashion world. Sometimes styles come back around. Plus, this release is testimony to those who back then accused me of selling out because of the funk. Today it fits right in with what’s going on in jazz today.”

Lawrence will be joined onstage with an impressive support team of pianist Robert Turner, guitarist Dennis Nelson, bass player Weldon Scott, drummer Yayo Morales and guest trumpeter Brian Swartz. The February 17 date serves as a warm-up forerunner to the six-member Azar Lawrence Experience landing back in New York City for a four-night run February 22 to 25 at Lincoln Center’s, Dizzy’s Club.

Lawrence was born and raised in a music-loving family. At age 5, he was in the church choir and was first introduced to the violin, then viola. He chose to play saxophone when he turned 13. His mother educated him by playing jazz radio stations where he became introduced to the likes of John Coltrane and Lee Morgan and others.

His full-scale schooling came from a new neighborhood friend, Reggie Golson, the son of jazz star Benny Golson who moved his whole family to Los Angeles to write for TV shows such as crime-solving drama “Ironside” that ran for seven seasons, 1967 to 1975. ”Reggie had a huge collection of albums, and a system that was top of the line,” Lawrence says. “We’d sit and listen to so much music. That’s when I started thinking of trying to sit in with McCoy.”

A key influence on Lawrence was his senior high school friend, Herbert Baker. “He was a year younger, but he was quite the musical genius from an early age,” he says. “He was inspiring. He practiced all the time, and he couldn’t pass a piano without playing it. He was the actual person, not a mimic. He was a grown old soul in a young body. He was my mentor. But he died in a car accident. He had another mission in his life to go to. With Herbie gone, it was up to me to carry on the music.”

Today, spirituality plays a foundational role in Lawrence’s music. “I’m a believer in a universal most high,” he says. “There’s nowhere that God is not. I feel like I’m on an exploration to go back home. I just turned 71, but I feel ageless. I swim, play tennis and I’m physically mobile. It’s as if we’re on a field trip where we all get amnesia about our mission. We’re born here, but then we will return home. That’s the blessing.”

The Azar Lawrence Quintet performs at Southampton Arts Center on Saturday, February 17, from 7 to 9 p.m.. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for social hour with complimentary wine bar. Tickets $30 ($25 members) at southamptonartscenter.org or 631-283-0967. Southampton Arts Center is at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. For details on Hamptons Jazz Festival’s winter series, visit hamptonsjazzfest.org.

— Dan Ouellette is based on Shelter Island and has been writing about music for close to four decades. He is the author of his four books, including “The Landfill Chronicles,” due this spring from Cymbal Press.

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