By Shaun Brady | Photo by Ola Baldych
Trumpeter Josh Lawrence grew up in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, studying at Princeton High School with the tyrannical teacher caricatured in his classmate Damien Chazelle’s movie Whiplash. For the last four years, Lawrence has lived in New York City, where he’s pursuing his Masters at Juilliard while garnering accolades with his own band, Color Theory, or on tour with pop superstar Seal.
Regardless of where he came from or where he currently hangs his hat, Lawrence insists, “Philly is home to me. End of story. When I introduce myself to people I say, ‘I’m from Jersey, but Philly adopted me.’”
Lawrence’s ties to the city are evident throughout his work. Color Theory features drummer Anwar Marshall, a constant in Lawrence’s bands, as well as musicians introduced to the trumpeter through his work in pianist Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band. With Marshall and bassist Jason Fraticelli, he continues to co-lead the inventive Fresh Cut Orchestra, an ensemble originally assembled under the auspices of the Painted Bride Art Center that has gone on to enjoy a surprisingly long and fruitful life. most recently, a transformed version of the band traveled to North Carolina’s Black Mountain College to perform legendary drummer Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite in early 2019.
Even the band assembled for British singer Seal’s Standards tour was Philly-centric, reuniting Lawrence with longtime friends like trombonist Ernest Stuart, saxophonist Korey Riker, and saxophonist Chris Oatts.
Enlisted by innovative trumpeter Dave Douglas to compose a new piece of music for the annual Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), Lawrence once again declared his love for the city with “Philly Twisted,” which welcomed a pantheon of local trumpet players including Terell Stafford, John Swana, Arnetta Johnson, Leon Jordan Jr., and Duane Eubanks.
“Playing all around the world has been great, and living in New York has definitely been fulfilling from a career perspective,” Lawrence says. “But day-to-day life there feels like being in the trenches: hop on the subway, go where you need to go, get the work done, go home. I miss Philly in a lot of ways.”
Lawrence first arrived in the city in 2000, earning a scholarship to the University of the Arts. A first stab at breaking into the New York scene proved unfulfilling, and the trumpeter took off for a year in Poland with his future wife, Ola Baldych. Returning to the States the couple found themselves back in Philly for a second five-year tenure, this one forming the associations and laying the foundation for Lawrence’s work since. He became a key member of Evans’ Grammy-nominated big band along with meeting his most important collaborators.
“I was basically raised musically in Philly. That’s been a real asset to me; it’s a specific sound and a specific attitude to life—not just music—that helps you relate to people from all over the place.”
Lawrence has released three albums on Posi-Tone by his scintillating Color Theory band, strongly drawing from the visual arts as well as other influences. His most recent album, Triptych, comprises a trio of suites inspired by painter Vasily Kandinsky, the band Earth Wind and Fire, and his wife. There’s something at the core of his music, though, that will forever remain tethered to his spiritual home.
“I was basically raised musically in Philly,” he says. That’s been a real asset to me; it’s a specific sound and a specific attitude to life—not just music—that helps you relate to people from all over the place.”