Azar Lawrence has a number of things in common with his idol John Coltrane. Like 'Trane, he plays tenor saxophone, and first came to prominence as a member of Miles Davis' group. Azar’s first appearance with Miles was on the landmark Dark Magus album. As the title implies, this was one of Miles' heaviest recordings, and Azar's contribution is significant. After putting his time in with Davis, Azar worked with a number of other artists, including Coltrane alumnus McCoy Tyner.
Rashied Ali will probably be best remembered as the drummer in John Coltrane's final group. His playing on such jaw-dropping pieces as the hour-long version of "My Favorite Things" from Live In Japan is simply extraordinary. So it was a real thrill for me to discover that Rashied's final recordings were made with Azar, and have now been issued as Mystic Journey.
The set opens up with the title song, an appropriately free extravaganza. Azar's horn strikes me as a little closer to that of Pharoah Sanders than John Coltrane, which is all to the good. Pianist Benito Gonzalez begins his solo in a fairly traditional manner, then takes a suitably abstract turn to wrap it up. In addition to the tenor sax of Azar, the group’s horns consist of the alto sax of Gerald Hayes, and the trumpet of Eddie Henderson. The three converge to close out the song with a furious blowing session, reminiscent of some of Ascension's wilder moments.
With the personnel Lawrence assembled, I fully expected Mystic Journey to be a completely free album. So it was a bit of a surprise to hear the group's version of the beautiful ballad "Say It Over Again." The tune evokes the feeling of a late night in a smoke filled lounge about fifty years ago. Azar's sax floats over the top of the understated bass, drum and piano accompaniment and needs no pyrotechnics to prove his point.
The standout for me has to be the McCoy Tyner composition "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit." The entire group gets a chance to shine on this ten-minute cut, and everyone is playing at peak levels.
The last track on Mystic Journey is "Starting Point," written by Rashied Ali. The tension between the more traditional jazz sounds, and Ali's free roots are fully played out here, to great effect. Azar's sax, and Henderson's trumpet solos are definate high points, but the drumming of Rashied Ali is what this tune is all about. He had certainly not lost any of his fire behind the kit.
Mystic Journey is a great reminder of one of the most explosive eras in the history of jazz. But there is much more to it than just being a clinic on free music, the playing of the group is as tight as it gets, and there is a real stylistic variety present. It is one of the better jazz releases I have heard so far this year.