Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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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October 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/9/11

Every day, under ideal circumstances at least, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #508:

Amalia Rodrigues – Com Que Voz

The best-known and most influential singer in the world of fado – the sad ballads considered to be the national music of Portugal – was 49 when she made this album in 1969. It’s a collection of iconic Portuguese poems set to music by her longtime musical director Alain Oulman, who gets credit for expanding her sound to include styles from all over Europe. The sonics are lushly orchestrated but not cheesy, and Rodrigues’ steely, resolute, plaintive voice is in top form, through the bitter expatriate anthem Trova Do Vento Que Passa (Tradewinds); a remake of her 1961 hit Maria Lisboa; ballads like As Mãos Que Trago (I Give You My Hand); the stately title track, swaying Gaivota and Formiga Bossa Nova; the haunting Cuidei Que Tinhas Morrido (I Saw That You Died) and Naufragio (Shipwreck); nostalgic Havemos de Ir a Viana (Back to Vienna), Madrugada de Alfama (Alfama Morning) and Meu Amor, Meu Amor. Everything else Rodrigues did before this point is also worth seeking out, if your taste runs to quiet, emotionally vivid songs, Portuguese not required. Most of this album is streaming at myspace; here’s a random torrent.

September 9, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ana Moura’s Live Album Surpasses All Expectations

By the end of 2009, fado siren Ana Moura’s album Leva Me Aos Fados (Take Me to the Fado Club) had gone platinum in her native Portugal. This one predates it by over a year, before she sang with Mick Jagger and Prince, before her career had really taken off. Like its predecessor, much of her new live album Coliseu is sad, brooding minor-key nocturnes, recorded at two stadium shows in 2008 and available for the first time on cd outside Portugal. It goes without saying that the true test of a singer is how well they perform live, under the lights, without the comfort of the studio and Moura acquits herself well – if anything, she sings better here. It’s kind of funny hearing her launch into fado icon Amalia Rodrigues’ Lavava No Rio Lavava (Down to the River) a-cappella and actually very compellingly, but the big stadium crowd doesn’t appear to pay any mind – until they’re singing along at the end when the band finally comes in. Other than on a couple of clapalongs, they’re less of a presence the rest of the way through.

It’s a small group for a stadium concert: Manuel Neto on Portuguese guitar, Jose Elmiro Nunes on acoustic guitars and Filipe Larsen on bass. Their spiky, intricate jangle, with the bass an almost imperceptible, driving force, creates a blend of textures that’s absolutely exquisite. In front of them, Moura projects with an impressive subtlety and command of dynamics through a mix of new material along with some fado standards, a mix of stately, wounded ballads and bouncy, upbeat songs – if there was anything to criticize about Leva Me Aos Fados, it was that she sang everything on it pretty much the same. It’s a completely different story here.

Os Meus Ohos Sao Dois Cirios (My Eyes Are Two Big Candles) is a perfect example. Like so many fado songs, it’s a lost love ballad, a gorgeous guitar janglefest with two big dips where they bring it down to where Moura holds back and lets the impact settle in. Later, she adds an element of sarcasm to her brisk interpretation of O Fado de Procura (Waiting for You), sort of a fado counterpart to Three O’Clock Blues – finally she gives up looking for the guy and orders an espresso. In a lot of ways, fado (the national music of Portugal) is a lot like the blues – Sou do Fado, Sou Fadista (Fado Is Me, I’m a Fadista) is something like B.B. King singing “I’m a bluesman,” but it’s an awfully pretty song. They pick up the pace with O Meu Amigo Joao (For My Friend Joao), whose bouncy fingerstyle folk-pop melody contrasts with the bitterness of the lyric, an emigrant whose “blood was a seed for money-grubbing somewhere else.” E Viemos Nascidos do Mar (We Came out of the Sea) is another fast, sarcastic number, the girl on the half-shell with nothing but contempt for the dimwits on the beach gaping at her. There’s also a couple of frisky gypsy jazz songs, as well as a handful of torchy ballads by popular contemporary fado songwriter Jorge Fernando, whose catalog Moura mined the last time around. It’s out now on World Village Music.

March 8, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment