Strickland offers a delightful trip through his life in one-man show
By Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff | September 30, 2006
In the low-ceilinged black box that is the Boston Center for the Arts’ smallest theater, Boston jazz artist Stan Strickland takes a rapt audience to Hawaii, India, and the outer reaches of his own expansive soul. It’s an amazing trip.
Strickland has been collaborating for several years with playwright Jon Lipsky to develop this one-man delight, the awkwardly subtitled but otherwise glorious “Coming Up for Air: An AutoJAZZography.” Wisely, Lipsky’s writing and direction places Strickland’s music at the center of the story. The words they’ve written together are wonderful, but it’s the music that most fully reveals who Strickland is.
The narrative focuses on a near-death experience when Strickland was body-surfing in Hawaii and was almost drowned by a couple of rogue waves. He opens with a quick and scary evocation of that moment — and quickly sets the tone for the evening by leavening the terror with humor.
As the waves cracked and snapped his body, Strickland recalls, he had two thoughts: “Look for the light” and “What a shame — how embarrassing — to die without a hit CD.”
He didn’t die, of course, though the accident injured his tongue and teeth so badly that he still speaks with a hint of sibilance. That adds a pleasing softness to his already charming demeanor. Wryly self-aware, amusing, and generous but modest in sharing his insights, Strickland is also nearly luminous at times. When he’s improvising one of the remarkable interludes on saxophone, flute, clarinet, keyboards, or drums, the purity of his focus creates a palpable glow.
In a funny and moving sequence, Strickland recalls his quest for enlightenment in the Punjab, which ended when “Guruji” told him jazz would never get him there.
“I decided to look for transcendence in this world,” he says. The best moments of his music reveal that he’s found it.
Occasionally the sound gets a little loud for the tiny confines of this space, but mostly it envelops the audience without being overwhelming. And it’s terrific music, free and various but deeply coherent and true. Strickland also shows us where it comes from, with lovely evocations of his grandmother’s singing in church, his father’s rough chant of a work song, and a riveting scat version of another man Strickland cites as spiritual kin, John Coltrane.
One thing he admires about Coltrane, Strickland says, is that through all his explorations of different genres, he was “always searching for something authentic.” It’s that same insistence on authenticity that makes “Coming Up for Air” feel powerful and real. With a wave of his hands or a few simple steps, Strickland summons up such characters as an aging blues sideman, a Maori drummer, a hot young blood challenging him on sax, and his hula-dancing girlfriend.
They’re all so vivid that you long to find out more about them, and about what happened to Strickland after that life-changing moment in the surf. He presents “Coming Up for Air” as the story of everything that took him to that moment, but it does leave you wondering where it took him next.
Well, in the question-and-answer session that concluded the show on opening night, Lipsky said with a laugh, “You should hear the hour we cut.” If it’s anything like this 80-minute marvel, I’d like to buy my ticket now.
THEATER REVIEW – Strickland on stage: Where life, art unite
Jazz musician Stan Strickland is the subject of “Coming Up For Air.”
By IRIS FANGER
For The Patriot Ledger
Billed as ”Boston’s favorite Jazzman,” the affable Stan Strickland steps
out from behind his saxophone, flute, keyboard, drum set, and finger cymbals
to talk about his life and music in a one-man, 80 minute theatrical piece,
”Coming Up For Air.”
Like Chicken Little, Strickland created the work himself and performs it,
but he’s helped by playwright, Jon Lipsky, who structured the musician’s
memories into a theatrical dialogue and staged it in a manner that engages
the audience as participants.
The evening unfolds as if Strickland had invited the viewers into his studio
for a bit of music and conversation.
The central event, which calls up the rest of his life, is Strickland’s near
death experience when he almost drowned off the coast of Hawaii on a New
Year’s holiday in 1989. Floating on his back under the sun and zephyr winds,
he was brought to the bottom of the ocean and miraculously back up again by
two rogue waves, to suffer a broken neck and nearly bit-off tongue.
He recalls the twin thoughts in his mind: ”I’m going to die,” and ”Too
bad, I never had a hit record or made it onto the charts,” perhaps the
universal subtext for the contemporary musician.
At both beginning and end of the work, he recreates the physical action of
succumbing to the water and fighting it, using his body and his enormous
vocabulary of vocalized sounds, overlaid with a sense of spiritual
The rest of the reminiscences are connected in chronological order, from a
brief recounting of his childhood in Ohio when he was orphaned at age 5 and
taken in by a protecting grandmother, to his current occupation with music
and teaching in the Boston area.
The spoken segments are punctuated by riffs of music from his instruments
that are placed around the stage as the chief bits of scenery, arranged and
lighted by Eric Levenson.
Strickland also sings in a rich, charismatic fashion and dances when it
suits him and the material. He earns his acting chops by impersonating many
of the people he has encountered.
I won’t soon forget Strickland recreating a Hawaiian hula dance, his hips
rocking gently, his arms in opposition as his eyes echo the swaying of his
body, nor his persona as a mad Maori from New Zealand, banging on a single
drum to assert his identity.
Although Strickland is a consummate jazz musician, as proficient on an
electronic keyboard and percussion instruments as playing the flute and
saxophone, his chief means of expression for this performance are the
movements of his fluid body and his amazingly complex vocal apparatus.
At the opening preview of the work this week, the audience seemed to be
filled with members of Strickland’s chosen family, which includes the large
number of students he teaches at Lesley College where he completed a Master
of Arts degree in expressive arts therapy, Berklee College of Music, Tufts
University and Longy School of Music, not to mention the many dancers for
whom he has provided music.
Strickland, a mainstay of Boston’s jazz world for more than 30 years, now
widens the circle in this affecting foray out from the clubs and classrooms
into the theatrical spotlight.
COMING UP FOR AIR/ AN AUTOJAZZOGRAPHY
Conceived and performed by Stan Strickland at Boston Center for the Arts,
through Oct. 14. Tickets $20-$25 at 617-933-8600 or BostonTheatreScene.com .
He’s in a new stage of life
Strickland tells his story in song, dance
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff | September 26, 2006
Saxophonist Stan Strickland has been a mainstay of the Boston jazz scene for more than 30 years. He may be on his way to becoming a mainstay of its theater scene, too.
“Coming Up for Air: An Autojazzography, a one-man performance piece starring Strickland, previews tomorrow night at the Boston Center for the Arts and runs through Oct. 14.
“I really felt the need to do this one-man show,” Strickland says. “Just to stand and play the saxophone didn’t feel like it was all my authentic self.”
So in “Coming Up for Air” he acts, sings, and dances, too. Conceived by Strickland, the piece was written by Jon Lipsky, who’s also directing it.
“We’re old friends,” says Lipsky, who cast Strickland as Dr. Sax in a 2002 production of his play “Maggie’s Riff, an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “Maggie Cassidy. ” Strickland had previously acted in the Boston Art Group’s 1987 production “Harlem Renaissance” and a 1999 production of “Crossing John at the Crossroads” at Northeastern.
Impressed with Strickland’s stage presence, Lipsky said he’d like to do another play with him. Strickland mentioned that he’d been toying with the idea of a one-man show.
Lipsky had the idea of Strickland doing his own life story. They started talking about Strickland’s past, going over it in detail. One incident stood out. On Jan. 2, 1989, Strickland was body surfing in Hawaii. He almost drowned when a pair of rogue waves hit him. Lipsky realized this near-death experience was an ideal event around which to organize an autobiographical piece.
“I knew he’d had this accident,” Lipsky says. “He told me how his life literally flashed before his eyes and these two thoughts entered his head as he was drowning: `Look for the light’ and `What a shame not to have had a hit CD.’ I thought that was a wonderful basis to tell the tale.”
Strickland agreed, though as he laughingly says of the accident, “At the time, I wasn’t thinking of doing a show about it!”
“Coming Up for Air” has a dozen characters, all played by Strickland. It lasts about 80 minutes, roughly half of which consists of Lipsky’s script (taken from Strickland’s words), and half is music Strickland improvises. It started as a workshop production at the Vineyard Playhouse in March 2005. Strickland and Lipsky have kept tinkering with it since, through several other workshop productions in Boston and on the Vineyard.
“The wonderful thing about working with Stan,” Lipsky says, “is that almost everything he did he did in terms of storytelling about his life. I could ask him to put in a musical beat or phrase or tone or rhythm, and he could find it.”
Strickland, who jokingly says he’s “more than 50,” was born in Springfield, Ohio, a small town about 80 miles from Cincinnati. He began singing as a child, picked up trombone in grade school, and started playing flute and saxophone in high school. He began on tenor sax, but also plays soprano and alto.
At Central State University in Ohio, he majored in chemistry, but music was his true love. All sorts of music: “I was very much influenced by [John] Coltrane and Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman and James Brown and Ray Charles and Nat King Cole,” he says.
Strickland joined a band called Brute Force that played what might best be described as avant-garde R&B. “Our music was a cross between Pharaoh Sanders and Sly Stone,” he says with a chuckle. The group signed a recording contract with flutist Herbie Mann’s Embryo label, but eventually broke up.
The band had toured a lot in the Northeast during its two years’ existence. That’s how, in the early ’70s, Strickland ended up in Boston. Except for a couple of years in New York during the early ’80s, he’s been here ever since.
“I don’t know if one can survive just playing jazz in Boston — or most any city,” Strickland says. “Well, there are some people, mostly people in rhythm sections. But everyone I know teaches.” Strickland teaches at Berklee, Longy, and Tufts. He’s also codirector of a North Shore program for at-risk youth, Express Yourself.
Although this wasn’t the intention, the title “Coming Up for Air” applies equally well to his hectic schedule as to his predicament in Hawaii. “Sometimes it’s a bit much,” Strickland says. A sentence he uses to describe the transcendence he strives for in his music would seem pertinent, too. “It’s like trying to get to a place on a ladder where ladders are not allowed,” he says.
“Coming Up for Air: An Autojazzography” runs tomorrow through Oct. 14 at the Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Black Box. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com
Strickland adds lyrical approach to his singing
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | December 16, 2005
Stan Strickland will be wrapping up an unusually eventful year at the Acton Jazz Cafe tonight, even by his wide-ranging standards.
It was in 2005 that Strickland released ”Love and Beauty,” the first CD on which he sings lyrics in a three-decade-long career built mostly on John Coltrane-inspired horn work on tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, and flute.
He also ramped up his acting career this year, staging the one-man play based on his life, ”Coming Up for Air: An Autojazzography.”
These projects were in addition to steady sideman work, his teaching at Berklee, Tufts, and the Longy School of Music, and his work as codirector of Express Yourself, a program for special-needs children.
Strickland will focus on tunes from ”Love and Beauty” tonight, with David Zoffer on piano, Wesley Wirth on bass, and Eric Doob on drums. That means he’ll be singing recognizable songs, still a big enough novelty for the cafe’s website to be billing tonight’s show as ”Stan Strickland Sings!”
”I’ve always sung,” he says. ”In the past, my vocalizing has been more non-lyrics, using sounds and exploring vocal textures and scat-like things. That’s something I’m going to do more, too.
”But using words is so much different because of the nuance of different vowels and text, and so I wanted to explore just singing songs that I liked.”
The result was a CD made up nearly entirely of jazz standards. Strickland uses overdubbing to accompany his singing on ”God Bless the Child” with just his own bass clarinet, and he brings soul and funk elements to bear on ”The More I See You.” His ”But Beautiful” is more straight-ahead jazz, with Tiger Okoshi’s trumpet setting the mood along with Brad Hatfield on piano and drummer Jun Saito’s brushwork.
The lone original on the CD is the soprano sax-infused title cut, which Strickland came up with while rehearsing ”Coming Up for Air,” the play inspired by his near drowning during a 1989 trip to Hawaii.
”It’s basically about having gone through this experience and still finding myself not dead,” Strickland says of the play. ”Like, what do I do musically trying to recapture a sort of mystical experience that I had, and trying to find a way to manifest this internal experience into some kind of sound. The whole play sort of talks about that, and explores songs and music from childhood, associated with different family members. And there’s a lot about Coltrane and his influence.”
The details of the near drowning are certainly dramatic. Strickland says he was swimming off the Big Island in Hawaii in January, peak season for especially large waves, and ”wasn’t experienced enough to know that you never turn your back on the wave.”
”The next thing I knew,” he says, ”I felt like I was dropped from a second story window on my face. So I broke my nose and fractured my sinus, almost bit my tongue off, cracked my teeth — and then another wave came, and I thought, well, that was it.
”But in the middle of all this, I had this weird thought about how embarrassing it would be to die without a hit CD. That’s kind of the hook of the play.”
Strickland wanted to do a one-man show with a story line that let him play various instruments and sing, and he enlisted playwright Jon Lipsky to write it. Strickland had recently played the role of Dr. Sax in Lipsky’s play about Jack Kerouac, ”Maggie’s Riff,” when they began brainstorming a piece based on Strickland’s near-death experience. Lipsky interviewed Strickland on the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard over the course of three or four years before committing the play to paper. Strickland then found himself in the odd position of committing Lipsky’s words about his own life to memory.
”I was telling my mother that I was doing a one-man autobiographical show,” he recalls, ”and she said, ‘Who’s it about?’ And I said, ‘Me.’ And she said, ‘Well, that ought to be easy, Stanley.’ ” He laughs. ”Easy for her to say.”
The play debuted last March, with two-night runs at the Vineyard Playhouse and the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Strickland is now working on getting it an extended run at the Boston Center for the Arts in fall 2006. In the meantime, he’ll keep concentrating on his music — both instrumental and vocal.
”It has a lot to do with texture,” Strickland says of his late-blossoming urge to sing lyrics. ”Because if you are vocalizing without lyrics, you don’t get the same texture that you do working with a word, because of all the diphthongs and the consonants. I like the texture of words.”
Excerpt from a review by Steve Feeney from the Portland Press Herald – Maine Sunday Telegram
Sunday May 14, 2006
Maine Jazz Festival Series begins on a high note
The local jazz scene has definitely been showing signs of life this spring. Particularly encouraging is a new concert series in Yarmouth.
The Maine Jazz Festival Series opened Friday night, and while many of the faces on stage may have been familiar to regular concert-goers, the venue and the spirit of the evening was fresh.
Held at the First Universalist Church, an acoustically friendly hall with pretty good sight-lines, the concert featured two groups of good musicians playing the type of mainstream jazz that has broad appeal.
The Stan Strickland Quartet from Boston began the evening with a set highlighting the considerable talents of its leader. Opening on flute with a tune rife with Brazilian flavors, Strickland established a strong stage presence as he wove a melody through the insistent rhythmic context established by his band.
Strickland offered a fine tenor sax solo that segued at the end into an all-too-brief “tag,” as he called it, of Pharaoh Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan” that represented the group’s most adventurous playing of the night.
A take of Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” gave pianist Dave Zoffer, bassist Wes Wirth and drummer Eric Doob time in the spotlight.
The evening closed with a spirited set from the Trent Austin/Tom Snow Quintet. With the exception of powerhouse saxophonist Mike Tucker, the players in this ensemble are well-known to local audiences.
Austin and Tucker formed a strong trumpet/sax frontline on the opening tune, Tucker’s “Fanfare,” a piece that lived up to its name with its declaration of the joys of hard-bop jazz. Tucker was particularly strong on a version of Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes,” a tune associated with John Coltrane.
Snow, a Yarmouth native, manned the electronic piano. Jim Lyden played bass, with Les Harris Jr. on drums.
Austin, on flugelhorn, showed a softer side on a Kenny Wheeler-inspired original before the band went nuts on a gumbo version of “Caravan” that had the large crowd swaying.
The series, which benefits church programs, returns June 10 with the Mark Kleinhaut Trio.