Sara Serpa’s Mobile Puts the World on Notice
In this era where full-length albums are becoming noticeably scarcer, they still make a handy way to follow the careers of the musicians and composers who continue to record them. Notable example: Sara Serpa. Her debut, Praya, was an aptly titled, beachy, enjoyably quirky collection that introduced her as a unique new voice. The singer/composer’s speciality is vocalese: she doesn’t often use lyrics, and she doesn’t scat, per se. She simply performs as an instrument within a group, whether out front or as a member of the supporting cast. Her clear, unadorned, disarming voice has an extraordinary directness, and honesty, and depth of feeling: if it was possible to look a mile down and see the bottom of the ocean with perfect clarity, Serpa would be the instrument to make that happen.
Her second album Camera Obscura, a collaboration with legendary noir pianist Ran Blake, established her as one of the great singers of her time: the album is a hushed, haunting thrill ride. Her latest one, Mobile, solidifies that rep and also puts her on the map as a first-rate composer. Every track here is solid. Serpa may play mostly jazz clubs with musicians from that community, but her style transcends genre. Academics would call it third stream: lately, she’s let some influences from her home country show themselves; she also happens to be unsurpassed at torchily brooding blues ballads.
As emotionally impactful as her music tends to be, it’s also rigorously cerebral. This album includes ten tracks, each inspired by a different book. Its central theme is travel: Serpa is Portuguese, based in New York when she’s not on tour, and obviously no stranger to new surroundings. The compositions follow a clear narrative: to call them cinematic would be an understatement. Ironically, Serpa’s presence here takes a back seat to the band sometimes – and wow, what a band. Pianist Kris Davis makes a perfect choice to channel Serpa’s uneasy yet resolute minor keys, austerely glimmering chordlets and the occasional rippling cadenza. Bassist Ben Street and drummer Ted Poor have a casual but incisive chemistry as they work their way up and down again, while guitarist Andre Matos also contributes.
The opening track, Sequoia Gigantis, begins with her quoting from Travels with Charley by Steinbeck: “The trees are an ambassador from another time.” Building toward an otherworldly ambience, she balances spaciously impressionistic piano and a couple of contrastingly off-kilter guitar excursions right up to a tremendously effective tradeoff to the vocals: it’s almost impossible to tell where the guitar leaves off and Serpa takes over, with an increasing sense of wonder. Ulysses’ Costume is a funk-infused number, Davis and Poor maintaining a dark undercurrent with some creepy Monk-inflected clockwork architecture as Serpa alludes to the hero recalling his journey’s ups and downs. Inspired by V.S. Naipaul’s Area of Darkness – a chronicle of the author’s 1962 trip to India to explore his roots there – Pilgrimage to Armanath sets wary vocalese over austerely spacious electric piano and acoustic guitar, working methodically toward something approaching an epiphany.
Ahab’s Lament – a Moby Dick reference – begins creepy and grows triumphant. As Matos’ guitar climbs judiciously toward a big crescendo, this could be the Grateful Dead in 1969, with a good singer. From there they practically segue straight into If, a chilling return to Serpa’s noir days with Blake. E.e. cummings never sounded so plaintive or torn up, Matos’ chromatics enhancing the wounded ambience. Inspired by Ryszard Kapuscinski’s 2001 African memoir Shadow of the Sun, the next track remains pensive, although it has the most improvisational feel of anything here, Serpa holding the center after the band all climbs together and then goes their separate ways, rustling and scurrying.
Serpa does the Amalia Rodrigues fado hit Sem Razao (No Reason) as rainy day jazz lit up by Davis’ piano behind the clouds, then takes the last verse pretty straight up. Gold Digging Ants, an image from Herodotus, is chilly, insistent and mechanical, most likely a deliberate choice, Serpa offering deadpan menace over apprehensive modalities. Corto (drawing on a Hugo Pratt graphic novel) stays dark and picturesque, an evocation of ocean waves. They end it with City of Light, City of Darkness, influenced by Portuguese writer Jose Rodrigues Migueis’ Gente da Terceira Clase (The People in Third Class), a series of interwoven vignettes including what could be bustling subway and street scenes. As one would expect from Serpa, it ends unresolved. There’s an enormous amount to sink your ears into here: count this among the half-dozen best albums of the year in any style of music. Serpa plays the album release show for this one tomorrow night, the 13th at 8:30 at the Cornelia St. Cafe here in town and then on the 15th at the Lily Pad in Boston with Davis, Matos and a similarly solid rhythm section.
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