DOWNBEAT June 2006

JAZZARTSIGNS Wheelock College Family Theatre, Boston, MA
by Fred Bouchard

It's a gig like none other. Singer Lisa Thorson's band's onstage, playing loose and warm. But who are all the extras? Two women on a podium stage-left take turns hand-signing along with Lisa's lyrics, while on a large scaffold stage right a dancing woman flamboyantly paints a huge portrait of the band playing. An off-stage annnouncer gives thorough play-by-play, and someone's typing nearly every word onto a caption monitor. Welcome to JazzArtSigns, all you jazz fans, disabled listeners and/or watchers, art buffs, music therapy students!

If the stage looks busy, it's just the swirl of a backstage maelstrom of long-term planning, hardscrabble funding, and complex logistics, reasons why this is just the third performance since Thorson conceived it in 1999. The on-stage cast -- Thorson, saxophonist Cercie Miller, bassist Dave Clark, drummer George Schuller, pianist Doug Johnson, American Sign Language interpreters Jody Steiner and Misha Derissant, improvisational painter Nancy Ostrovsky - is mirrored and amplified by off-stage support: Vince Lombardi (audio describer), Don DePew (captions), Marc Okun (sound), Josh Monroe (lights). The hook: at some points, everybody trades fours, improvises! Collaborating presenters are fearless, too: Wheelock Family Theater hosts events for historically under-served minorities, and VSA Arts of Massachusetts sponsors arts performances for the disabled; both groups are celebrating silver anniversaries.

Well, is the show worth all this effort? I'd say yes. The jazz content is top-notch, the set list unusually evocative. Cercie solos on soaring alto on "Double Rainbow" as Nancy sketches large red forms. On "Speak No Evil" Lisa sings "It's time to learn" while Nancy Ôscats' white starbursts, Cercie, Lisa and Dave trade fours. Parker's "Anthropology" and Tom Harrell's"Terrestris" inspire air-solos by Jody and Misha. Lisa's purling voice invokes beauty and peace on her "Wondering Why" and new lyrics to "My Favorite Things" foster chuckles. She reads the audience's scribbled wishes during a slow-burn, sinuous "Lonnie's Lament" with arco bass and mallets. Misha's hands flail note-for-note with George's mallets on "Eye Music", which Vince recites offstage. Lennon's "Imagine" reharmonized, finds Cercie airborne and Doug afire. While Nancy daubs aural/visual inspirations on black paper, she prances in sync with rhythms and dynamics. Spreading an acrylic rainbow, she brandishes squeegee, squirt bottle, palette knife, brushes, feather, even a daisy, to paint an energized portrait of the playing band. Sometimes everything stops and Vince catches us up with a graphic account of the mural's evolution. There's often too much to keep up with - a good sign for mind-stretching.

Making music accessible to the disabled has been a goal for Thorson since a 1979 accident left her wheelchair bound. The performance - 90 minutes, no break - constantly redefines audience / performer interaction. The interactive potpourri of improvisation, music, visual art, and language encourages audiences to bond in a spirit of acceptance, innovation and cooperation. Thorson's hybrid of theatre and music brings people together to effect social change. (In 1980, she co-founded Next Move Unlimited, a theater company that championed disabled performers.) "We welcome first-time jazz listeners with music that's diverse and theatrical but not difficult, lyrics aimed at unifying people from different musical and social levels. We play few standards (tough to sign), avoid dark moods (to lighten up hard-bop). With so much going on, listeners may have to choose. We keep our sense of adventure and humor, balance shorter solos with the big picture."

After the show, wheelchair people greet Thorson in the lobby, Ostrovsky shows her paint-box and palette, weighs offers for the mural; the musicians bask onstage, Schuller showing his drumkit. Thorson explains: "It's a tightrope walk. The presentation cannot be based on ticket sales, because it must be affordable. We cannot do it in a big space because we lose intimacy. Funders may not see it as artistic, jazz presenters may say it's not jazzy enough. Hey, life is a performer with a disability!"

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