Josh Lawrence: The Go-to Horn Player.
The inside of Morningstar Studios provides a rich contrast to the sweltering mid-afternoon heat baking the pavement outside. Behind the studio’s doorway lies a small hallway lined with framed records and a small selection of gear braced against one side. Intermittently, a mixture of saxophone, upright bass, electric piano and drums funnel through the open door to the live room. Up a flight of stairs, Josh Lawrence is anxious to spend the day recording yet another album.
A month prior, the Rittenhouse-based performer and educator was interested in creating something different from his other albums, which have always had a narrative focus. At the suggestion of his wife, Ola Baldych, who works as a graphic designer, Lawrence set out to write music with a more malleable theme in mind – colors.
So began the start of Color Theory.
“I knew who I wanted to be in the band and I knew what sound I wanted, but I didn’t have any music written for them yet,” says the trumpeter as he’s seated on a black leather couch in Morningstar’s lounge area. He’s wearing a deep purple button-down and black slacks rounded out with a pair of black Chuck Taylor’s.
“So I put the band together, booked a bunch of gigs and started writing music for each one of the shows,” he continues.
The quick turnaround from concept to execution comes as no surprise to someone of Lawrence’s heavy work schedule. Since moving from Cranberry, New Jersey to Philadelphia in the late ’90s to pursue an undergraduate degree from the University of the Arts, Lawrence has become entrenched in the jazz scene here and beyond.
“I did my undergrad, just working as a musician around [the city], but I really wanted to play jazz,” he says. “So, I used to hang out at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus back in the day when it was still the full-time jazz club and Northern Liberties was kind of a rough neighborhood.”
After cutting his teeth locally, Lawrence decided to move to New York City in 2005 to further explore the jazz scene. He gigged with everyone he could and taught his craft to others. He then moved to Poland and spent time touring Europe with his trio and various other projects before ending up back in Philadelphia for the last five years. His schedule has remained packed.
When he isn’t teaching at University of the Arts, Drexel University or the Kimmel Center’s Creative Music Program, Lawrence is constantly doing sessions and gigging – performing with acts including Captain Black Big Band, PACT, Bobby Zankel & the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound and Aerial Photograph (below).
Alumni from Lawrence’s other projects are joining him on Color Theory’s recording session. In addition to having Caleb Curtis on alto saxophone and flute, Brent White on trombone, Adam Faulk on Fender Rhodes and Madison Rast on bass, Lawrence is being joined by Captain Black Big Band bandleader Orrin Evans on piano and Anwar Marshall on drums.
Marshall is one of Lawrence’s bandmates in Fresh Cut Orchestra, one of his larger projects. Recording with Fresh Cut Orchestra is how Lawrence learned of Morningstar Studios.
“As a horn player you get called to do a lot of session work for whoever, basically,” he says. “I came into a session and said, ‘Man, this is where I’m going to do whatever I’m gonna do next.’ And once it was time to do it, I just made the call.”
Since then, Lawrence has used the studio space as his base of operations for most of his recorded work. In a manner of happenstance, engineer Dave Schonauer, who engineered Lawrence’s first session at the studio, mans today’s studio session.
“My job’s easy,” Schonauer says as the band readies themselves in-between takes. “I just get to sit back and listen to great music.”
While the 12-hour session ahead of them may seem grueling to many people, it’s just another day for Lawrence, who in between relentless gigging and sessions is looking forward to the release of Fresh Cut Orchestra’s second album, Mind Behind Closed Eyes, which dropped on Aug. 26 on Ropeadope Records.
In Fresh Cut Orchestra, Lawrence splits writing duties with Marshall and bassist Jason Fraticelli for the 10-piece orchestra, including four horns, two guitars, percussion and laptop electronics. The ensemble, which began as a commission from the Painted Bride Art Center, is one of Lawrence’s mainstays.
“The idea of that record was, what do you see when you close your eyes when you listen to music? That was really the focus of that record,” Lawrence says. “It’s like an electronic jazz project.”