Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit: Azar Lawrence on His Time With McCoy Tyner

Azar Lawrence Reflects on His Time With McCoy Tyner

News | Jul, 13th 2017

In honor of McCoy Tyner’s recently-announced induction into ourErtegun Jazz Hall of Fame, we spoke with saxophonist Azar Lawrence, who played as McCoy’s sideman on some of his most acclaimed albums, includingEnlightenment, Sama Layuca, andAtlantis.

Jazz at Lincoln Center: How did the call from McCoy come? What was that conversation like?

Azar Lawrence: Well, I was living and playing with Elvin Jones and our group, The Jazz Machine, was playing at the Vanguard, and there were promotional signs up there saying that the McCoy Tyner Quartet would be coming the next week.

Alphonse Mouzon came down to hear Elvin, and he came over and introduced himself to the band. He says, “I’m going to tell McCoy that you’re the sound that we need for the group. If you’re going to be in town next week, can you come down and I’ll arrange for you to sit in?”

I went down to the Village Vanguard the next week and got in touch, saw Alphonse, and he introduced me to McCoy. McCoy started talking to me and said, “Man, you like to play music?” and I said, “Yeah,” and he asked, “Would you like to sit in?” He asked me a few things about music and if I was interested in touring and things like that. Of course, my answers were all “Yes,” so he invited me to sit in.

When I went up there, I didn’t know the song, and Sonny Fortune—the great Sonny Fortune—was actually the horn player in the group. I asked him, “What key is it in?” and he couldn’t hear me, but he put his finger up and made a C so that’s all the information I had about the song. After Sonny played, McCoy nodded at me and I soloed.

People came up to me and were saying how great I sounded, how they enjoyed it. McCoy came straight over to me and started saying, “Hey man, I like the way you pound.” We exchanged numbers, and he said he might be getting in touch with me.

The next day, I was at my home and I got a call. He said, “Hey buddy, this is McCoy.” You can probably still hear my screams. He said, “Yeah man, I’d like you to join the group.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, for sure.” He set up a rehearsal and we rehearsed several compositions and that’s how it happened.

I later asked McCoy, "How could you play with a guy like me, after playing with the great John Coltrane?" and McCoy said, "I think you feel the same way about music as John."

JALC: How did the classic “Enlightenment Suite” come to be?

Azar: The next performance we had with McCoy was in Norway, and that was pretty interesting. That was the land of the midnight sun. The sun would go down around 11pm for the sunset, and about 2am it would come back up like it was noon. It was a one night concert there, and that morning around 3am I got a call from McCoy and he said, “Hey buddy, I hope I didn’t disturb you. You feel like playing some music?” I said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m out here to do.”

I met him down in a room behind the lobby where there was a piano, and he showed me “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit,” “Inner Glimpse,” and the songs that ended up becoming the "Enlightenment Suite.” We went over and over those, the two of us, and then at about 6am Juini Booth and Alphonse came down, rehearsed with us for an hour or two, and then we were off to the airport.

When I met them in Montreux, we sound checked for about 20 minutes and went over some of the melodies for the songs that he had showed me. Nothing was written. That evening was the next time we played the "Enlightenment Suite,” and that was the recording session, which was live.

We got onstage, and right there were Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley, and they kind of patted me on my back. I was shaking, man. I was like, “Oh no!” Then I thought I was okay, I had gotten past it. Then I looked out in the front row and Bobby Hutcherson and Woody Shaw were sitting there. It was a lot of pressure, man.

On every floor, they had the musicians divided up at the hotel. On my floor was Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball… everybody. So I was reluctant to even practice. I was stressed out because, these guys, man… I don’t even want them to hear me practice. 

So after we perform, McCoy got up off the piano and ran over to me like Yusef did. And I was like, “Oh shoot.” He said, “Man this was the best recording I’ve ever done. And my best performance. My best performance of my life.” I was so honored that he told me that.

JALC: What did you learn from playing with McCoy? How did he approach the music and the ensemble concept?

Azar: McCoy’s musical concept is so vast in its harmonics , but also in its rhythmic approach. I mean, it’s like playing with an orchestra every night, the way that he used voicings and the intensity that he plays with, but the softness and delicacy that he uses within the intensity of it.

On that live Atlantisrecord, McCoy and I did the composition “My One and Only Love” as a duet. After we did the melody, as he was soloing I would stand toward the end of the piano.

I remember it was a ballad, and he did a run and ended up in the bass notes so delicately, but three bass strings popped and whipped back, and I just got out of the way of them. But yeah, it was on a ballad! He didn’t hit it hard; his touch was just so precise and intense even within the softness. It’s a dichotomy, for sure.

So I learned how the perfection in delivering the music is the usage of not only the tonalities—the harmonics—but also the percussion aspect of it, because the drums are being played. All those hammers in the piano are the drums sticks. McCoy striking the string as I strike the tones with my tongue and with my fingers, it’s the same thing; they’re hammers.

JALC: Could you go into more detail about his piano touch and approach? And also his compositional approach?

Azar: It’s hard to put into words his compositional approach, but it is very unique.  The compositions have, I’d say, African roots. A lot of his stuff has a different format than your standard jazz. He uses a blend of some of the other rhythms—African rhythms and Brazilian rhythms—in his compositional work.

His touch is that of a yin and a yang. That touch is the work of a master. He’s mastered the physical and harmonic values of that instrument to such a degree that, even in its measured delicacy, the strength is still there. He’s a master!  

JALC: What are your favorite McCoy albums of all time, and what are your favorites that you yourself played on?

Azar: Three of the top albums that I like from McCoy just happen to be the ones I played on. I share his sentiment, in terms of “The Enlightenment Suite” being the top of the heap to date. Even some of the newer performances of those same songs didn’t quite, for me, capture the areas we touched on when we [first] did it. So theEnlightenment album would be my top, the Atlantisalbum—which I’m on as well —that one is up in the top rung, and theSama Layuca album, where Gary Bartz, John Stubblefield, Buster Williams, Billy Hart, and Guilherme Franco… where we came together and blended our sounds, was definitely one of the top albums. Now, albums that I’m not on of McCoy’s, I’d have to sayThe Real McCoy andExtensions.

McCoy Tyner will be playing at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola on Tuesday, July 18th. While the show is fully reserved, tickets may be available at the door. Not in New York? Watch it live at jazz.org/livefor free!

Photos courtesy Wikimedia or the artist.

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