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Live Reviews

JazzArtSigns Concert at Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston

By Published: April 2, 2006
On Double Rainbow by Jobim, Thorson sang first in Portuguese and then in English. The caption screens displayed the lyrics in the pertinent language, while the signer interpreted the lyrics (English version only) and also seemed to describe and comment on the music (as surmised by a non-ASL speaker). The caption screens also displayed some descriptive comments, such as which instrument was soloing; during Thorson's scat solos, the screens displayed "(Scatting)". The Wayne Shorter tune Speak No Evil (with lyrics by Vanessa Rubin) was a good vehicle for both voice and sax. Coming in at the end of Miller's solo, Thorson's sang in unison with the sax in a similar timbre and perfect intonation, to uncanny effect.

While the musicians played, Nancy Ostrovsky painted with dancelike gestures. As she applied dabs and splats of thick, intensely colored paint, a portrait of the musicians took shape. She wielded a variety of painting implements, including long-handled brushes of various widths, spatulas, sponges, and something that looked like a big yellow plastic daisy. Ostrovsky stayed in the groove while she selected colors and implements, and her paint-strokes kept the music's syncopated phrasing. On the bop standard Anthropology (Parker and Gillespie), Ostrovsky traded eights and fours with Thorson, Miller, and Clark. When the painter took her turn, she improvised both visually and aurally, as her painting produced percussive sound, especially striking when she used a wide spatula to strike the board with a thunk.

Thorson's original songs included the pensive, peace-themed Wondering Why. On another number, Thorson improvised lyrics on "wishes" submitted ahead by audience members. The wishes including freedom from pain and disease, flat terrain, a dog-friendly society, accessible restrooms everywhere, and a peaceful world. Thorson humorously wrapped up the themes of peace and accessibility, both popular with this audience, by describing an earthy image of world leaders forced to sit together in a room with no restroom access â??¢ until they came up with a working plan to end all war.

Along with their service to hearing-impaired attendees, signers Steiner and Derissaint contributed artistically, as they synchronized their intrinsically expressive gestures with the music and, when they both signed, with each other. In a song about the beauty of nature, Derissaint's particularly graceful use of her arms and fingers were a moving complement to Thorson's ever-vibrant delivery. Derissaint also signed an ASL poem, for which (as is reportedly traditional) no spoken or printed translation was given. Schuller played quietly during the poem, providing some aural interpretation of her gestures.

The concert closed with My Favorite Things by Rodgers and Hammerstein, with some of additional lyrics about Thorson's favorite things. Over a vamp, Lombardi described Ostrovsky's completed painting, which depicted the musicians and a signer plus an imaginary woman crouched in front of them, intently taking in the performance.

JazzArtSigns Strengths and Challenges

Jazz, as an improvisational performing art with a tradition of musical and cultural synthesis, is a natural for a multi-sensory approach. As it successfully incorporates on-the-spot visual artistry into a jazz performance, JazzArtSigns ingeniously uses aspects of the multi-sensory creation in its array of accessibility aids. The JazzArtSigns performers and production people demonstrated flexibility, intercommunication, and cooperation in putting on a compelling show.

The abundance of channels for experiencing the performance can be a little disconcerting, leaving an audience member (at least, one fortunate to possess full hearing and sight) wondering what to pay attention to at any particular moment. Captioning, for example, can help a listener catch fast-paced lyrics. It can also divert attention from the artistic import of the show toward, say, guessing how the captioner was utilizing speech-recognition software.

It's clear that JazzArtSigns was conceived with the expectation that many audience members will experience the performance in unfamiliar and perhaps challenging ways. In an article published by VSA Arts in 2002, Thorson is quoted as saying that there's an "element of uncertainty" in JazzArtSigns that may require an audience member to choose among different means of experiencing the show at a given moment. She explained that requiring those moment-to-moment choices helps make the improvisation on stage accessible to the audience by involving them in it.

While newer and remodeled halls and clubs make live jazz accessible to disabled performers and audience members, many jazz venues remain poorly accessible, and the use of signing and captioning for jazz shows is too rare. Appreciating the expense and other challenges of creation and production, one hopes for many more presentations of JazzArtSigns and other jazz performances that integrate artistry and accessibility.

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