When Azar Lawrence first burst on to the jazz scene in the '70s he was hailed by many as the second coming of John Coltranean almost sacrilegious assertion considering the godlike stature to which Trane had risen during the decade following his premature passing. But it was not a totally unreasonable one considering that the powerful saxophonist was already burning up bandstands in groups led by Coltrane alumni Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner before he had even reached his 20th birthday.
Lawrence was born in Los Angeles, November 3, 1953. He started playing drums at the age of three and by five he began formal studies on piano and violin, encouraged by his mother, who was an elementary school music teacher. At 11 Azar was performing with the USC Junior Orchestra when he became enamored with the sound of the alto saxophone he heard played poolside by a family friend; his father, a stalwart supporter of his son's musical endeavors, promptly bought him a Selmer and his fate was sealed.
Playing in the Dorsey High Jazz Band, Lawrence met Herbert Baker, a piano prodigy who was playing with Freddie Hubbard. It was Baker who first introduced Lawrence to piano master Horace Tapscott, an important mentor who helped shape Lawrence's musical philosophy, who by then was immersed in metaphysical studies at the Aquarian Spiritual Center. Lawrence credits the center and his time with Tapscott's Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra with preparing him for the formidable task of playing with Tyner and Jones.
It was another highschool friend, Reggie Golson, who introduced Lawrence to Jones. Golson, the son of saxophonist/composer Benny Golson, who was living in LA writing for television and films, was close to Elvin, who had given a drum set to the aspiring percussionist. The young Golson had a sizeable record collection and it was through him that Lawrence, who had by then switched to tenor, became immersed in the music of Coltrane. "It just touched me," he says. "There's a message in it and it just touched me so much spiritually." Jones recognized Lawrence's affinity to Trane's spirit and hired him for his group the Jazz Machine.
In a performance with Jones at the Vanguard, drummer Alphonse Mouzon heard Lawrence and told McCoy Tyner, in whose group he was playing, about the fiery horn man. Tyner hired the saxophonist shortly thereafter, beginning the most productive period of his young musical career. Lawrence's appearances on the albums Enlightenment, Atlantis and Sama Layuca, among the pianist's finest works, led to an in demand status that led to recordings with trumpeters Woody Shaw, Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, as well as three fine dates as a leader, including the unheralded Bridge Into The New Age.
Soon Lawrence was doing more lucrative commercial work, writing for the likes of Phyllis Hyman, Stanley Turrentine and Earth Wind and Fire. Unfortunately, his newfound prosperity quickly proved the old adage "cocaine is God's way of telling you that you're making too much money" and the successful saxophonist soon succumbed to a drug habit that all but took him off the music scene for nearly a decade. During those "dark days," as Lawrence describes them, he worked occasionally with Billy Higgins, borrowing horns when he couldn't get his own out of the pawnshop. Higgins tried to help Lawrence come to terms with his addiction, but it wasn't until three and a half years ago that he embraced sobriety and embarked on this newly creative stage of his life's journey.
The new live recording, Legacy and Music of John Coltrane, with fellow saxophonist Edwin Bayard, proves that Lawrence is more than ready to reemerge, blowing strong tenor on four Trane associated tunes. On his own soon-to-be-released date, Speak The Word, with his working Los Angeles group, he's doubly impressive with tenor and soprano in a program that includes several originals and an inspired collaboration with flamenco vocalist-guitarist Critobal Osario. On the recently recorded Prayer For The Ancestors he again teams up with Morgan, along with former Tyner teammate Al Mouzon.
Lawrence, who has been performing regularly in Los Angeles for almost four years now, hasn't been a complete stranger to New York since resurfacing. He played with Tyner at Blue Note last year, with pianist Benito Gonzalez at Sweet Rhythm a few months ago and with drummer Greg Bandy in Harlem before that, but his upcoming appearance at Dizzy's will be his first chance to lead a band. The music is sure to be powerful and though it is doubtful that anyone will declare it the second coming of John Coltrane, many will unquestionably be impressed with the second coming of Azar Lawrence.