Coming Up for Air – starring Stan Strickland

Coming Up for Airstarring Stan Strickland
@ Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA
Matt Robinson

Ringed by instruments from all over the world on an otherwise bare stage, award-winning singer/songwriter/sax man Stan Strickland tells the story of a musical life almost cut short before the hero can hit “the chaaats.” Struggling under the waves off Hawaii, the director of Express Yourself ( looks back on a career that has included teaching at Berklee and Longy School of Music and playing with Sonny (Rollins) and Shirley (Horn), Miles (Davis) and even (Bob) Moses. And though this was apparently not Strickland’s first near-death experience, the story is still captivating and well written, filled with self-referential road signs that keep the story breathing circularly and poetic descriptions that, along with subtle shades of light (compliments of lighting designer Eric Levenson), fill the bare stage with musical color.


Instead of struggling with the undertow, Strickland looks for the light and eventually grabs it. Along the way, Strickland introduces us to such memorable characters as his belt-snapping father (source of Strickland’s first musical memory), his pie-baking, life-saving grandmother, his beloved Isis and her whacked-out, stringless bass-playing brother, and Chief, a percussive mentor who pushes Strickland to new levels of music, but also to the edge of the precipice from which he falls, only to be reborn again through a meditative journey that teaches him the importance of breathing and finding the spaces between “yes” and “no.” 


In addition to his father’s renditions of “Lucky Ol’ Sun,” Strickland’s musical journey is punctuated with flute solos that range from lyrical to aggressive and sax shots that go from whisper to wail to warped weapon, as well as impressive performances of Coltrane’s “Wise One,” an improvisational dance around the instrument-strewn stage, and an audience-encompassing encore of “Amen” that allows all who enter to truly share in the spirit of this remarkable musician and man.


“Coming Up for Air” will be performed at the Central Square Theater ( until August 9, after which it will head to Scotland for a run at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival.


– Matt Robinson