Few artists inhabit their music as seamlessly as guitarist and composer Lawson Rollins. He plays his instrument with a soulful intensity that combines the stimulating rhythmic drive of rumba, salsa, and samba with graceful melodic finesse and free-flowing improvisational flair. In the past few years, Lawson has become one of the best-known jazz/world/fusion guitarists in the country and developed a worldwide following. His albums have spawned several Billboard Top 30 contemporary jazz radio hits and won him a growing fan base attracted by his melodic, exhilarating solos and exotic, cross-genre instrumentation performed by internationally renowned musicians. Sensational videos like "Locomotion," a jaw dropping display of his electrifying speed and gift for merging rhythm and melody, have attracted millions of broadcast television and internet viewers, including nearly 8 million hits on YouTube alone.
Lawson's critically acclaimed, genre defying solo albums - INFINITA, ESPIRITO, ELEVATION, and FULL CIRCLE - have landed high on the Billboard Top 30 contemporary Jazz radio charts and produced a Billboard #1 song - "Moonlight Samba" from ESPIRITO. FULL CIRCLE hit the Billboard Top 10 World Music Album Sales Chart and the album's massive radio airplay landed Lawson on the Top 100 Contemporary Jazz Artists of the Year chart in RadioWave, which monitors radio airplay on over 2,000 channels. He recently served as "Celebrity Guest DJ" on Sirius-XM Radio, hosting a 1 hour show, broadcast to 25 million subscribers, a testament to his enduring appeal on radio.
His albums feature numerous collaborations with eclectic artists from around the globe, including Grammy Award winners and nominees like Charlie Bisharat, Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Kayhan Kalhor and Horacio Hernandez. In his globally-inspired music, Lawson incorporates the propulsive drive of Afro-Cuban rhythms with a style based on the music of Spain, India, Persia and the Arab world. "All music has a hybrid quality," Lawson believes. "Thousands of years of travel, trade and communication between cultures created new forms of musical expression. The Spanish guitar embodies this with its ties to the Arab oud, the Persian tar, even the sitar, so weaving those strands together seems natural to me."
Lawson's recordings have earned him rave reviews in the media. Guitar Player Magazine praises his "ungodly classical chops...dazzling speed, uncanny accuracy and beautifully delicate touch."
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Lawson picked up the classical guitar at age 15 after hearing the recordings of Spanish guitar legend Andres Segovia. Though he began his studies in the classical genre, he quickly developed his own style, a combination of salsa, Latin jazz, blues, samba, bossa nova, flamenco and classical music. "While obsessively studying classical guitar in my teens, I discovered Latin jazz through some of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's Latin infused collaborations. Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan led me to bossa nova; Miles Davis' Concierto de Aranjuez opened my eyes to Spanish tinged improvisation. Duke Ellington's world-jazz album The Far East Suite was also a revelation that led me away from purely classical guitar music and towards a world music fusion sound in my compositions." Lawson's genre-blending playing was marked by a distinctively sparkling technical proficiency, grounded in an uncommonly dexterous classical finger style approach.
After graduating with an English degree from Duke University and earning a graduate degree from the London School of Economics, Lawson moved to Washington, D.C. and formed the genre-busting Latin fusion group Young & Rollins with guitarist Daniel Young. Their hit debut album SALSA FLAMENCA immediately landed on the Billboard Top 25 Chart for its genre in the year 2000. They toured the world, performing at major music festivals and venues like the Sydney Opera House, and made three more records - SEVILLA (2001), ESPERANZA (2005) and MOSAIC (2006) - before Rollins left the group to explore new musical horizons. He moved to San Francisco and created his first solo effort, INFINITA, an album that touched on all the music he was interested in. It added Arab, Caribbean, Persian, classical North Indian and other world music colors to the mix. "I envisioned a multi-instrumental, kaleidoscopic sound that would give me a chance to explore a diverse array of musical styles from around the globe, far beyond the salsa-rumba fusion that was primary to the Young & Rollins palette of sound."
INFINITA was made with the production assistance of Shahin Shahida of the Persian-American duo Shahin & Sepehr and platinum producer/pianist Dominic Camardella (Ottmar Liebert, 3rd Force, Flora Purim). It included an impressive cast, featuring Azerbaijani kamancheh virtuoso Imamyar Hassanov; Afghani vocalist Humayun Khan; Grammy winning violin player Charlie Bisharat; bassist Randy Tico; Persian percussion master Pejman Hadadi; drummer Dave Bryant; iconic Brazilian singer Flora Purim; and legendary percussionist Airto Moreira. The album was released in 2008 to universal rave reviews and placed three singles - the Brazilian flavored "Cafe jobim," "In Motion" and the title track - on major jazz and radio airplay charts including the Billboard Top 30. Lawson's goal for the album was to create a globally inpired, cross-genre sound that would give the other players plenty of freedom. The recording amply matched his vision.
ESPIRITO expanded the geographical and musical range of Lawson's debut. The album was composed as a suite, with thirteen interlocking compositions that ranged freely through the folkloric roots of world music. Its wide-ranging palette spanned continents and cultures without ever losing its bedrock groove or playful sense of adventure. Lawson reassembled many of the players from the INFINITA sessions, including Shahida, Camardella, Purim, Airto, Bryant, Bisharat and Tico. He added Iranian kamancheh master Kayhan Kalhor, Cuban drummer Horacio Hernandez, Moroccan ghanoon player Hicham El Anmari, trumpeter Jeff Elliot, cellist Cameron Stone and vocalist Diana Booker from the world/jazz/hip-hop group Eyedentity, who was featured on the Billboard #1 radio hit "Moonlight Samba." It was recorded at Skywalker Sound, the state of the art Marin county studio owned by George Lucas and Santa Barbara Sound Design, Camardella's studio. It showcased a wider spectrum of sound, rich with Lawson's guitar overtones and a warm bed of ambient sound.
ELEVATION marked an expressive high point for Lawson, as both a composer and performer, breaking new ground with an eclectic cast of musicians. Always in search of unique sounds and new collaborators, Lawson enlisted producer Shahin Shahida to record some of the top Persian musicians on location in Iran, while associate producer William Aura took recording equipment to Kathmandu to capture Nepali flute master Ruben Kumar Shrestha and other Nepalese players. The performances were edited into the sessions Lawson recorded with the rest of his collaborators at Santa Barbara Sound Design. Once again, Lawson confounded expectations by enlisting avant-garde electric guitar legend Buckethead to add some rock flourishes to the Latin/Indian waltz "Slow Ascent" and the Cuban/Flamenco pulse of "Ghosts of Alcazar." Other guest artists on the album include Iranian santur virtuoso Pejman Eckhtiari, sitarist Nasir Syed and, most unlikely, the pedal steel guitar of Jim Hoke, featured on the Billboard Top 30 radio hit "Daybreak.". Like ESPIRITO, the record unfolds more like a symphony than a collection of songs, ebbing and flowing through soundscapes that are alternately dense and expansive, touching on free jazz, world music and Lawson's indefinable melodic sense.
FULL CIRCLE entered the Top 10 of the Billboard World Music Chart shortly after its release and lives up to its title, with 12 tightly focused tracks that bring Lawson's guitar work up front. The stripped down sound is produced by a small band of long time associates: producer and keyboard player Dominic Camardella; Grammy winning violinist Charlie Bisharat; bassist Randy Tico; percussionist Dave Bryant; cellist Cameron Stone and saxophonist/flutist Richard Hardy. The album is also the first to feature Lawson's work on electric guitar, keyboards and drum programming and offers insight into his creative process, which usually begins alone in the studio with a multi-track device to capture his initial inspiration. "My goal is always a piece that can stand alone as guitar music," Lawson says, "with melodies and rhythms that invite other players to share in the passion of the moment. FULL CIRCLE is a return to my roots in a sense; the sound that is centered and grounded in the instrument I know best - the nylon string Spanish guitar."
VIDEOS showcasing Lawson's unique finger-style technique and prodigious command of the guitar have gone viral on the internet and attracted millions of viewers - "The Fire Cadenza," "Santa Ana Wind," and "Locomotion". "The videos were meant to be eye catching and entertaining to watch, but I thought they'd be of interest mostly to fans of highly technical guitar playing," says Lawson. "I never planned to put them on an album; I just wanted to convey the feeling of a certain aspect of my playing." Not surprisingly, the videos struck a chord with viewers from around the world, both guitarists and non-guitarists alike. Guitar World Magazine aptly states: "It's not often that a Latin jazz/flamenco/samba guitarist generates millions of views on YouTube with short instrumental pieces, but Lawson Rollins is used to defying expectations."