Another Landmark Collaboration From Sara Serpa and Ran Blake
For a singer, recording a live album with Ran Blake is a potential minefield. The iconic noir pianist is no mere accompanist: he’s a bandmate. To say that he’s hard to follow is an understatement to the extreme. What is there about Blake that hasn’t been said already? That he is to improvisation what Schoenberg was to composition, maybe? Other pianists would kill to be able to command the kind of otherworldly menace that Blake goes up onstage and pulls out of thin air. And while there’s more often than not a rigorous logic to his melodic sensibility, there’s no telling where he might go with it.
This past May, Sara Serpa took fate in her hands and recorded a live piano-and-vocal album with Blake, titled Aurora and just released on Clean Feed. Adventurous as this may seem at face value, Serpa and Blake have the advantage of being old friends: she’s been a protegee of his since their days together at the New England Conservatory. Which comes as no surprise: they’re peas in a pod, rugged individualists and formidable intellects who share a fondness for third-stream eclecticism and a fear of absolutely nothing. This new album builds on the often shattering camaraderie they shared on their initial duo recording, 2010’s Camera Obscura.
What’s not news is that this is Blake being Blake, chilling, unpredictable yet at the same time giving the songs here plenty of wit, sometimes cruel, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes surprisingly droll. What’s news is how much Serpa, already a distinctive singer, has grown. The disarming quality of her completely unadorned, crystalline, reflecting-pool mezzo-soprano pairs off memorably and not a little hauntingly with Blake’s broodingly opaque, occasionally savage tonalities. Although her approach to a song has every bit as much rigorous precision as Blake’s, she’s back at her old Lisbon stomping ground here (at the sonically superb Auditorio da Culturgest, recorded both in concert and live in the hall the following day) and is clearly feeding off a triumphant homecoming of sorts.
The first song is Saturday, a ballad recorded by Sarah Vaughn early in her career. From its defiantly icy intro, “Saturday…just a doesn’t matter day” becomes a coolly poignant lament. When Autumn Sings, the first of two R.B. Lynch/Abbey Lincoln compositions, finds Blake doing an offhandedly creepy waltz up against Serpa’s surprisingly bluesy melismatics. And yet, by the end, he’s lured her deep into the shadows.
The duo veer between phantasmagorical ragtime and various shades of macabre on a piano-and-vocalese improvisation on Konrad Elfers’ Dr. Mabuse, from the film soundtrack – it’s one of the album’s high points. From there they segue into Cansaco, a 1958 hit for fado icon Amalia Rodriguez. It opens with a moonlit mournfulness, Blake and Serpa exchanging motifs, always understating the song’s lovelorn drama
They follow that with a jauntily carnivalesque take on the bizarre 1950s space-travel relic Moonride, inspired by the Chris Connor version. Serpa sings Strange Fruit a-cappella with a chilling nonchalance, only digging into the melody when the imagery becomes grisly. Blake’s solo spot, titled Mahler Noir, defamiliaizes a couple of late Romantic theme with a tersely crystallized, crepuscular menace that wouldn’t be out of place in peak-era Pink Floyd. Then they romp twistedly through The Band Played On, chosen since the song appears on the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
Love Lament, another Lynch/Lincoln song, gets a broodingly spacious understatement, Serpa matching Blake ellipsis for loaded ellipsis. They keep the snowswept angst going with Wende: the way Serpa sings “pressing so deep into my soul” will rip your face off. By contrast, Fine and Dandy juxtaposes wry Van Morrison allusions with Serpa’s utterly trad, completely deadpan acrobatics. They close the show with a ballad Serpa selected, Last Night When We Were Young, underscoring this ode to defeat with an absinthe hush that’s as quietly powerful as anything these two artists can conjure. Like their previous collaboration, this album makes a mockery of any attempt to rank it against others from this year or for that matter any year. This is music for eternity, a bleak yet sometimes unexpectedly amusing antidote to the shadows encroaching around us.