Friday, September 25, 2009

Azar Lawrence - Interview by Bruce Anderson, Curator-Daly Jazz, Missoula, Montana


Azar Lawrence/Benito Gonzalez

Azar Lawrence and I headed up to Twin Lakes, the A.B. Guthrie ranch on the East Front of the Rocky Mountains located 18 miles west of Choteau, Montana. We drove east from Missoula, quietly winding our way along the Blackfoot River. This isn’t a traditional way to decompress after most jazz gigs, and Azar happily soaked up the landscape on his first visit to the state named for Guthrie’s novel “The Big Sky”. Venezuelan pianist Benito Gonzalez left Montana in the morning to return to New York. In the airport we listened quickly to a new composition he had been working on, and we talked a little about Joey Calderazzo, Louis Perdomo and Geoffrey Keezer. Benito’s characteristically broad smile was tired and a bit wistful. He’d just finished playing two exhilarating nights with Azar Lawrence at DalyJazz in Missoula.

As we drove, I asked Azar about his days playing with McCoy Tyner.

“You toured quite a bit with McCoy back in the ‘70’s, like 5 years or something, right? What was that like gigging with him?”

“I’ll tell you what. I was playing with McCoy, it was at the Montreux festival. At the hotel they had all the trumpet players on one floor, saxophone players on another, etc. Everyone was there. I mean, everyone! Stitt, Rollins, Moody, Ammons, Cannonball….you name it. I was scared just to practice! Stuck a towel in my horn, you know, hoping nobody would hear me.”

“When was that?”

“I don’t know, it was about the time “Enlightenment” was recorded in the ‘70’s.”

“That must have been a great time, you were just in your early 20’s.”

“Man, I was terrified. I got up to go on stage, started climbing the steps and I had to walk by Stitt and Cannonball first. Then I looked out and seated in the front row were Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, and I don’t know who all else. Everybody!”

“Yep, I’m getting the picture. So how did the music sound?”

“It must have sounded good…McCoy thought it was one of his best nights ever. He was pretty enthusiastic. Later I saw Stitt sitting at the bar and he waved me over. I asked him for a lesson. We went up to his room and he says, play me a blues. Imagine that, playing the blues for Stitt….”

“Stitt was pretty strong, I don’t think he ever made a bad recording in his life.”

“Strong? Are you serious? He was one bad ass horn player!”

Since leaving Missoula a few hours ago, we’ve been exchanging small talk and occasional glimpses of our lives. The weather, bad roofing jobs we’ve both done, places we’ve lived, a couple memories of great musicians we’ve heard play. A lot of it is little stuff – but sometimes mixed with the big things - the loss and joy of caring for loved ones, and what seems to make sense about life. We talked only a little about Azar’s remarkable performances of the last two nights…though I was certain we’re both still immersed in the music, the afterglow of what happened, and the wonder of what could be. By now somewhere over Nebraska at 30,000 feet, Benito Gonzalez was certainly thinking the same, staring at his tray table in the locked and upright position. You can’t play or hear jazz at Azar’s level without the experience changing your life -either for the day, or quite possibly forever. I asked him about Atlantis, the second jazz album I owned at age 12.

“You recorded the album “Atlantis” live at Keystone Corner with McCoy. What do you remember about that gig?”

“I remember that McCoy showed me the tunes in the morning, right before the gig that night. He played through them and I jotted down some quick notes. I had to remember everything until we recorded live a few hours later. I’d never played any of it all the way through until we hit. McCoy was always doing that. We’d get off the boat or plane or whatever, go to the gig, and he’d just start the tune. I’d have to figure it out from the intro.”

We stopped for gas but the only service station had no working pumps. We continued over Rogers Pass with only a quarter tank. Azar seemed a little nervous about that. I reminded him of the Sonny Rollins album “Way Out West,” and suggested that running out of gas could always provide a great photo opportunity - plus an empty tank would give him a chance to practice. In a few minutes, the entire East Front of the Rocky Mountains opened up before us. Clouds and rolling hills created a patchwork quilt of sunshine on the plains. The view stretched a hundred miles, nearly to Canada. A faded sign said “Welcome to Beef Country.” I told Azar, “Don’t worry man…I’m a vegetarian too. We’re going to survive this, promise.” Azar replies, “Yeah, it’s hard on the road. Even the salads have meat, you gotta pick that stuff out. For a while I ate venison, really got into it. But I’m back eating mostly vegetarian. I run a clean program now.”

“Hey, so what’s your typical practice routine?,” I asked.

“I practice everyday, sometimes eight or more hours. I start with long tones up and down the horn, 10 on each note. I play until I can hear the note start to merge with the other notes, get closer you know, until I can hear them together. Then I do the chromatics, play them till it’s smooth. The horn starts to feel glassy. Then the diatonics, scales.”

“So you’ve been playing for what, 3 or 4 hours at this point?”

“Yeah, I’m short on time…more than that to get through the scales. I’ll work intervals and other stuff later.”

“How does your lip hold up with all that?”

“Well, you got to practice. If you put the horn down, it just turns right back into a piece of metal. You’ve got to start over again.”

We turned left at Bowman’s Corners, north to a small ranching town called Augusta. Azar was quiet; I saw the landscape had pulled him in. Left to my own thoughts, I replayed the first set on Friday night. About half the audience was comprised of working or former musicians, some of whom had driven 4 or more hours to hear Azar and Benito. I stood close to the drummer, a very young local player named Sam McKenzie who had practiced Azar’s set list for weeks. He was terrified. I leaned over and told him to breath.

The first tune was John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” and it opened up like a thunderclap. I watched everyone’s eyes open wide as Azar’s horn fills the room. The Yamaha grand shook as Benito pounced on the head. Bozeman bass player Craig Hall dug in, grinning from ear to ear. Sam hung on tight and stuck to his knitting. He was still breathing.

Pianist Benito Gonzalez is a huge talent and physical player. He rocks back and forth as he plays. His arms and hand position change continuously. The piano becomes liquid and alive in his hands. He takes the rhythm section on a tour through eight choruses that raise the energy in the room to a boil. The audience comes alive. Benito’s flashing smile fills the room.

Azar stepped back in and as he started to blow, it became clear the gospel was going to be delivered. And indeed it was - chorus after chorus of heartfelt music straight from this gentle jazz giant’s soul. I watched tenor players in the audience. An older professional who’d heard Dexter and ‘Trane play live is grinning, a second young tenor player’s cheeks are flushed bright red. Within a few short minutes, the room was completely transformed. Both jazz elite and jazz innocent were mesmerized by the synergy of Azar Lawrence and Benito Gonzalez. These two were absolutely on fire.

I replayed the images and music as we drove. “So Azar, how did you meet Benito Gonzalez?,” I asked. Azar says, “Benito was playing with Kenny Garrett at Catalina’s in LA. I sat in and we connected. I saw Benito again later at Bill Saxton’s place on 133rd in New York. I didn’t recognize Benito at first, but I recognized the sound. The next time we played was at Dizzy’s. In fact, we’ll be playing Dizzy’s Coca Cola Club for a week with Essiet Essiet and Rashied Ali in November, you should come check that out.”

We watched a hawk flying with a snake in its talons. The wind picked up over the plains, and I checked the gage. I figured we could always stop at a nearby ranch for gas. We shared some brief thoughts about greats like Elvin Jones, Nate Morgan, McCoy, and Steve Lacy.

“You gigged with Jaco Pastorious for a while, what was that like?”

“Jaco, me and some other cats were booked as an all-star tour in Europe. A drummer named Whitey set us up, booked the gigs. One time at JFK, Jaco gets into it with Whitey and Jaco just runs off the plane just as we’re about to pull away from the gate. So we all climbed off the plane. We eventually found Jaco down at a club in town, and caught a flight the next day. Turned out he’d dropped three tabs of acid.”

“How did it go when you finally got to Europe?”

“It was still crazy. I was put in charge of Jaco, I was his keeper. One night we were playing the Sunset club in Paris, and Jaco is floating in the bathtub with all his clothes on. He kept missing gigs, showing up late. But without Jaco, there was no gig. He was the top bass player in the world. He could get an attitude, but Jaco was always good to me. We knew each other long before he became famous, and he always treated me with respect.”

Our discussion drifted back to saxophone. We’d talked about sound before the opening night. Saxophone players spend endless hours switching horns and mouthpieces in search of a voice. Azar tried out my vintage ‘62 Mark VI in his hotel room. I knew it had some leaks, but I was curious to see what that instrument would sound like in his hands.

“What mouthpiece are you playing on these days?”

“I play a Berg, but I still carry my Link and play on that too.”

“Is that what you played when you were gigging with McCoy?”

“I think it was a Berg, maybe Link. I once played 10* Link. I have lots of mouthpieces; you know, you can never throw one of those away.”

The Mark VI sounded like Azar no matter what mouthpiece or reed he tried out. We laughed about that: no matter what, you always sound like you. You’re stuck with yourself. A person has got to make peace with that to move on.

Azar is often compared to John Coltrane. That comparison has been around since Azar started gigging and recording at age 20 with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. I think not so much because he sounds like John Coltrane, but because Azar is one of a handful of players who carries the fire of Trane.

“So what do you think about critics and reviewers that frequently compare you to Trane?”

“It’s an honor.”

“I mean, sometimes those comparisons are made as more of a critique, you know…”

“It’s still an honor. I never set out to sound like Trane. I never sat down and transcribed his solos or practiced licks or anything like that. Everyone has sound, a feeling. Mine is what it is. McCoy did tell me once that he thought John and I felt the music the same way.”

It is true that Azar does love to play tunes from Coltrane’s book. He’s played many of them in the last few days- “I Want to Talk about You,” “Impressions,” “Every time We Say Goodbye,” “Good Bait,” “Nancy,” “Resolution,” “Afro Blue,” “Lonnie’s Lament,” “Body and Soul.” And it’s also true that Azar’s searching clear voice on the horn probably resembles ‘Trane’s more than any player on the jazz scene, except perhaps for Pharoah Sanders. Like Pharoah, Azar is a gatekeeper of the spirit.

I asked “So, do you and Pharoah stay in touch?” “Yeah, we talk once and a while,” he says “We used to go down to this fish place.” “I mean, did you guys ever consider collaborating ?” “Oh, we see each other now and then. I sat in with him down at the Jazz Bakery recently. He played harmony on Naima, stuff like that.” Azar is above all a modest soul.

About 15 miles out from the ranch rain poured buckets. I told Azar, “This is usually when I put on “Transition.” Pointing to the I-Pod he says “Oh yeah, man…you got ‘Transition’ on that thing? Billy Hart tried to play that on the phone a few months ago. I haven’t heard it in years…but I know I could feel it when I heard it.” I said, “Are you sure - you want to hear that now?” Azar replied, “Yeah man, let’s hear it.”

So I put “Transition” on. This is mid-late Trane, 15 minutes of soaring, sacred music with Elvin, McCoy, and Garrison recorded in 1965. I suppose only a few non-jazz musicians or fans really know this recording. Beneath dark clouds wind pushed the truck around. In the distance lightning was hitting the peaks, and the wind was howling. McCoy finished his solo, and Trane started to play. He was in full flight and the hair on my arms was standing straight up, just as it did when Azar played the last couple nights with Benito. Garrison delivered the last note as we drove onto the ranch. I looked over at Azar and we were both wiping tears from our eyes. He talked about the music in spiritual terms, with wonder, about being in touch with a creator. I told him I’d once gotten a copy of the transcription by Andrew White. I started to say “I figured out pretty quickly….” - and we finished the sentence nearly in unison -“…it’s not about the notes.”

We pulled up to the cabin and the first thing Azar did was get out his horn. Long tones, chromatics, scales. After the rain, he took a long look at the mountains from a hill above the lake. He took a deep breath, and later came the ballads…”My Ship,” “My One and Only Love,” “Nancy.” As dusk fell, floating through the aspen trees and drifting in the western breeze were more than just notes, and frankly, more than simply music.

Azar Lawrence’s new release “Mystic Dreams” is anticipated for summer 2010 and features Rashied Ali (dr), Eddie Henderson (t), Benito Gonzalez (pn), Essiet Essiet (b), and Gerald Hayes, (a, sax).

Footnote: Rasheid Ali passed away in Manhattan on August 12, shortly after this article was written. He was 76.

By: Bruce Anderson, Curator of DalyJazz - Missoula,Montana



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