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.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.