Azar Lawrence & Al McLean – Frontiers – CellarLive

Azar Lawrence & Al McLean – Frontiers – CellarLive CL 073116, 72:22 ***: 

A gritty outing from two like-minded spirits.

(Azar Lawrence – tenor saxophone; Al McLean – tenor saxophone; Adrian Vedady – acoustic bass; Paul Shrofel – piano; Greg Ritchie – drums)

For a period in the ‘50s and ‘60s, groups led by two tenor saxophone players seemed to hold some caché. For example there was the group led by Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, another by Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca and a further group with Gene Ammons and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis. This type of group iteration fell out of favour without much fanfare, as such things often do. The concept has been rejuvenated with the combination of Azar Lawrence and Al McLean for the album Frontiers issued by the Canadian label CellarLive.

As for the music played on this session, in addition to several originals by the band’s front line, the majority of the tracks were penned by either John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk or Freddie Hubbard. Of equal import is the musicians themselves. Azar Lawrence is an American musician who has released a number of album under his own name, but may be best remembered as the tenor saxophonist who joined McCoy Tyner after the death of John Coltrane. His playing is in the Coltrane mold and can be readily discerned throughout the album. Al McLean is a Victoria B.C. native, but now a Montreal-based musician,  who has gained a solid reputation as a player with a fluid sound which is also easily identifiable.

Starting with one of Lawrence’s own compositions, “Mystic Journey”, the number is developed in a minor key, and opens with some strong unison playing by two main principals. The energetic beat keeps the piece moving forward as both Lawrence and McLean stretch out to establish a straightforward position in the number. Pianist Shrofel rips off an energetic solo to compliment the tenors’ lines. “Lonnie’s Lament” was written by John Coltrane and was originally recorded in 1963 for his Afro Blue Impressions album which was not released until 1977. This modal composition was structured to allow the players as much improvisational freedom as they can handle, and certainly both Lawrence and McLean take full advantage of this musical frame.

Thelonious Monk’s compositional contributions to the album are two of his best-known numbers: “Ruby My Dear” and “‘Round Midnight” . Although both are given ballad readings, Midnight has a delightful swinging undertone supported by the feather-light brush strokes of drummer Greg Ritchie. In both numbers, the themes written by Monk are replete with internal harmonics and chord changes, that are catnip to Lawrence and McLean, that push them to explore their eloquent inclinations.

Finally “Up Jumped Spring” by Freddie Hubbard, was written as a waltz and is faithfully conveyed in that tempo by the band. After the two horns set the theme, pianist Shrofel shows a clever contemplative solo that leads both Lawrence and McLean into creative territory with sinewy prowess.

This is a gritty outing from two like-minded spirits.

TrackList: Mystic Journey; Lonnie’s Lament; Ruby My Dear; Spirit Night; Get Up; ‘Round Midnight; Up Jumped Spring

—Pierre Giroux

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