After many decades being off the recording scene, saxophonist Azar Lawrence, still a relatively young man at age 56, is back with a set of originals that reflect his main influences -- Sonny Rollins or Joe Henderson to a lesser extent, but Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane to a grand degree. Modal structures, rhythms based in African music, and improvisations that are at once sweet and pungent identifies the sound Lawrence has always held close to his heart. With able help from bassist Henry Franklin, drummers Alphonse Mouzon, or Roy McCurdy, and pianist Nate Morgan, Lawrence is able to fly into the sun without ever scorching his wings. He never discards the solid musical values in his sinewy hands since halcyon days as a sideman with McCoy Tyner, or his challenging, against the grain of trendy funk/fusion-era early-'70s recordings for Prestige Records. The difference between Lawrence and all the Coltrane wannabes is that he lived and breathed the music of the turbulent '60s, playing it with 'Trane's contemporaries and peers. This is why tracks like Mouzon's bouncy modal samba "The Baker's Daughter," with assistance from trumpeter Nolan Shaheed and the powerful piece penned by Morgan, "Swinging in Exile" have such an authentic, rooted, earthy feeling. Of course it's mainly due to the full-bodied tenor of Lawrence, whose pithy, burning, soulful tone has stood the test of time, and falls well within the range of his great friends in bygone days. Yet despite the similarities, he remains fresh while true to himself, especially on the repeat melody of "Linda G.," and the hip, hard-swinging "Open Sesame" reiterating that these base elements of repetition and subsequent development are still valid some 30-plus years later. In a floating mood, "Ode to Pharoah," where Lawrence picks up his very mellifluous soprano sax with help from bassist Tony Dumas, and the title track back on tenor, are wondrous ballads similar to Coltrane's "After the Rain" Different from all the rest of the selections, "Thokole" is a 6/8 metered griot story featuring vocalist/guitarist Ibrahim Ba and kora master Amadou Fall, Lawrence again waxing poetic on the thin, higher octave horn, punctuating Ba's wise African lyrics. The prettiest piece is "Under Tanzanian Skies," with Morgan's cascading piano and the delicate, perfectly-in-tune soprano of Lawrence commiserating late at night. In many ways, this should be a recording where those who do remember Azar Lawrence get exactly what they expect. Hopefully listeners who have never known his work will not only thoroughly enjoy this excellent disc, but also discover work on albums like his essential Bridge into the New Age, Tyner's Sama Layuca, Enlightenment, Atlantic, and the Elvin Jones evergreen New Agenda.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos