Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Haunting Singer Sara Serpa Confronts the Genocidal Legacy of European Imperialism in Africa

Sara Serpa is one of the most hauntingly distinctive singers in any style of music to emerge in the past decade or so. She typically sings wordlessly, using her disarmingly clear voice as an instrument, whether with a choir or a band. Her latest project, Recognition – streaming at Bandcamp – confronts the grisly and all too often neglected history of European imperialism in Africa.

This project is also Serpa’s debut as a filmmaker. She took old Super 8 footage from her family’s archival collection made in 1960s Angola under Portuguese colonial rule and assembled a silent film out of it, then wrote the soundtrack. A VOD link to the movie comes with the album; as usual, Serpa has pulled together an inspired cast of creative improvisers for it.

The score opens with Lei Do Indigenato, 1914, a spacious, troubled, sparsely rippling overture that sets the stage for the rest of the record. The second track, Occupation is built around a distantly ominous, circling series of modal riffs from harpist Zeena Parkins and pianist David Virelles, Serpa’s vocals and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s eerily airy phrases rising overhead.

It’s amazing how Serpa opens the third track, The Multi-Racialism Myth, with a seemingly blithe series of octaves, then Virelles and the rest of the band completely flip the script with it. The pianist’s tumbling, Satie-esque flourishes are especially menacing: is this a commentary on how history gets whitewashed?

The same dynamic persists in the steadily marching, sarcastically titled Free Labour. In Beautiful Gardens, Parkins and Virelles build increasingly horror-stricken riffs behind her echoey narration of the great 1950s Negritude-era poet Amilcar Cabral’s witheringly sarcastic depiction of the imperialists’ lives of luxury, contrasting with the details of their murderous rule over the natives.

Turner has never played more lyrically than he does here, harmonizing with Serpa’s steady, uneasy vocalese in Mercy and Caprice. Civilizing Influence – how’s THAT for a sarcastic title? – is a darkly majestic instrumental for sax, piano and harp. The group follow that with Queen Nzinga, a bustling improvisational shout-out to a legendary West African leader who defied thirteen imperialist governors’ attempts at suppressing her; Parkins bends her notes as if playing a Korean gaegeum. As Serpa reminds, in four hundred years of Portuguese oppression, native Angolans’ resistance against the invaders never stopped.

Serpa’s one-women ghost-girl choir over the group’s resolute, bracing march in Absolute Confidence is absolutely chilling. The group slowly shift Control and Oppression into a chilly lockstep. Hannah Arendt found a connection between apartheid in South Africa and the Nazi regime; likewise, how much of the 2020 global lockdown has roots in imperialist oppression?

Propaganda is a return to blithe/sinister dynamics, which then fall apart: nobody buys this lie, no matter how strident it gets! The closing credits theme, Unity and Struggle, is an optimistically if sometimes awkwardly marching setting of another Cabral text, reflecting how African independence often turned out to be a struggle against the puppets of the departed imperialists. Serpa has made a lot of good albums over the years but this is arguably her best, right up there with her 2010 duo album Camera Obscura with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake, If there’s reason for, or the possibility of a music blog existing at the end of 2020, you’ll see this on the best albums of the year page in December.

Since she’s based in New York, it would be illegal for Serpa to play an album release concert, but she is doing a live webcast with brilliant guitarist André Matos on June 28 at 5 PM at the fantastic new jazz streaming portal Art Is Live.

June 8, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Won’t Stop Raiding the Archives for Good Albums

What could possibly be subversive about a toe-tapping, hard-swinging big band jazz album offering a fond nod back to the golden age sounds of the 50s? If you’re in New York, that kind of music is against the law now – if you’re playing it for an audience, anyway. Who ever knew that we’d be in the iron grip of a pseudo-medical Taliban at this point in our history. There is an election coming up this fall, folks – you do the math.

Since the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra can’t play live right now, they’re doing the next best thing, releasing high-quality archival concert recordings at a furious pace. Their 2017 performance of Duke Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige was as lush and symphonic as anybody could possibly want. The next one in the series, trumpeter Christopher Crenshaw’s The Fifties: A Prism – streaming at Spotify  – is a completely different animal.

This is one for the diehards and party people who love this group for their brassiness, and sophistication, and purism – and also because you can dance to this record. Crenshaw has been a driving force in the band for a long time; this 2017 concert is the debut recording of his six-part suite, which comes across as a homage to bandleaders from Dizzy Gillespie to Gil Evans. It’s idiomatic, yet it’s not predictable.

The opening number, Flipped His Lid is a straight-up, briskly strolling postbop swing burner, high voltage alto sax building to where the tenor takes the music in a more suave direction, handing off to scampering piano and a break where the rhythm section drops out completely – but the brass section doesn’t let that stop them!

The genial Just A-Sliding is a trombone feature, a jump blues with deep springs on the low end and a droll drum break. With its divergent, conversational voicings, Conglomerate is a look back at how dixieland went further north and got a little more serious. Crenshaw’s subsets of the orchestra chatting each other up over the bass and drums are a cool touch.

The wide-angle, tremoloing muted work of the brass and a guilelessly cheery clarinet solo give Cha-Cha Toda la Noche a suspiciously satirical feel; the overt Gillespie band homage at the end is spot-on.

Likewise, Crenshaw nails the lustrous, top-to-bottom Gil Evans voicings of Unorthodox Sketches, the requisite ballad here, clarinet going in completely the opposite direction this time. True to form, the group wind up the record with the epic Pursuit of the New Thing, a mashup of Ellingtonian gravitas, latin flair and Mardi Gras revelry with a bright alto solo and finally a dynamically rich one from the composer.

June 8, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment