Josh Lawrence Takes a Cue from Kandinsky


Josh Lawrence leads the band Color Theory.

(Photo: Ola Baldych)

When New York trumpeter and composer Josh Lawrence created his Color Theory ensemble and concept, his intention was to move away from the narrative, topical nature of his previous works in favor of more evocative, elusive ones. He wanted fellow musicians and listeners to rely more on their imaginations to interpret the meanings of his songs. “It was really just about taking primary colors,” said the 35-year-old Lawrence, referring to the group’s self-titled 2016 debut on Posi-Tone.

Armed with gladiator-like technical prowess and a flaring tone, Lawrence steered his ensemble of pianist Orrin Evans, alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis, drummer Anwar Marshall, trombonist Brent White, bassist Madison Rast and keyboardist Adam Faulk through a dazzling set of modern post-bop originals on Color Theory (Posi-Tone). Compositions such as the surging “Red!” or the lovely “Purple (4 Prince)” crackled with melodic ingenuity, rhythmic panache and vigorous interaction. “I’m a very visual person,” Lawrence said, “but I don’t see color so much when I play; I see a lot of shapes and I feel the music as colors.”

For a follow-up, Lawrence wanted to expand upon his idea. He’d gone to the Guggenheim Museum and absorbed inspiration from a Wassily Kandinsky exhibition. Those large-scale paintings, marked by vivid splashes of colors and geometrical shapes, motivated Lawrence to compose songs based upon them.

He began writing with support from a Chamber Music America grant. Then life threw him a curve. Right before he and his wife, Ola Baldych, moved from Philadelphia to New York in 2016, Lawrence’s brother-in-law, Grisha, died suddenly; he was 29. That jarring experience, paired with Lawrence’s exploration into Kandinsky’s works, inform Color Theory’s new kaleidoscopic disc, Contrasts (Posi-Tone).

Color Theory now showcases a slightly different lineup. Bassist Luques Curtis and pianist Zacchai Curtis replace Rast and Faulk, while David Gibson now handles the trombone part. The first half of Contrasts focuses on Lawrence’s impressions of Kandinsky works, such as the coruscating “Dominant Curve,” which is animated by a side-winding melody, and the Afro-Cuban inflected “In The Black Square,” which connects a 1923 Kandinsky painting of the same title with New Orleans’ historic Congo Square.

Contrast shifts focus midway toward more narrative songs with specific meanings. The rattling “Blues On The Bridge” was partially inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. The menacing “Gray” and the brooding ballad “Brown” pay homage to Freddie Gray (of Baltimore) and Michael Brown (of Ferguson, Missouri), two African Americans whose deaths at the hands of police sparked national outrage.

“It’s hard seeing injustices like that,” Lawrence said. “For someone to lose their life because they are in a systemic situation which they are born into, it’s hard to not let it affect you.”

Lawrence will tour throughout the year, including an Oct. 29 show at Dizzy’s in New York. DB

  • 23_Village_Vanguard_Joey_Baron_by_Michael_Jackson_copy.jpg

    “Bill Stewart has nothing to prove,” Baron says. “I aspire to that ethic.”

  • 23_Charles_Lloyd_1_by_Dorothy_Darr.jpg

    “At this point in my life I’m still looking for the note,” Lloyd says. “But I’m a little nearer.”

  • McBride__Kahn_copy.jpg

    ​Christian McBride and writer Ashley Kahn meet for a DownBeat Blindfold Test hosted by New York University’s Jazz Studies program.

  • Samara_Joy_%C2%A92023_Mark_Sheldon-4639.jpg

    Samara Joy brought fans to their feet in the middle of her Newport set!

  • Christian_McBride_by_Ebru_Yildiz.jpeg

    ’You can’t simply book a festival with things that you like,” Christian McBride says of the Newport Jazz Festival. “You have a responsibility to present up-and-coming artists who people don’t know yet. And you have to get people in the seats.”