Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Fearlessly Individualistic, Poignant Singer Sara Serpa Brings Her Catchy, Intimate New Album to Deep Brooklyn

That Sara Serpa’s voice is able to convey such a frequently harrowing depth of feeling is all the more remarkable considering that she doesn’t usually sing lyrics. But that doesn’t stop her music from addressing a wide range of relevant and sometimes controversial topics, from the disastrous effects of western imperialism in Africa, to philosopher Luce Iragaray’s radical proposals for how to eliminate sexist bias in language. Serpa’s latest album Close Up is due out momentarily, with three tracks streaming at her audio page. Serpa titled it after the Abbas Kiarostami film and the layers of meta created when non-actors played actors in a movie about themselves. She and her trio, who recorded it in a single June day last year, are playing the album release show on April 4 at around 8 at the Owl. Suggested donation is $10.

Lately Serpa has been exploring unorthodox lineups; here she’s joined by Ingrid Laubrock on tenor and soprano sax and Erik Friedlander on cello. Although he sometimes plays basslines here, the absence of drums and traditional chordal instrumentation enhance the music’s intimacy. In her liner notes, Serpa explains that the configuration creates “a vulnerability that sometimes verges on discomfort,” a consistent theme throughout her work, from Camera Obscura, her cult favorite noir jazz duo album with iconic pianist Ran Blake, to her role as a member of John Zorn’s Mycale vocal quartet.

Throughout the album, Serpa’s crystalline, starkly direct voice is calm yet often anything but serene. The opening cut, Object is as arresting as a canon for scat singing, soprano sax and cello could possibly be: Friedlander’s rhythmic riffs, Laubrock’s Balkanic trills and Serpa’s steady ba-do-ah keep the suspense going despite the catchiness of the melody.

Pássaros (Birds), with lyrics by her late Portuguese compatriot Ruy Bello, examines Messieanically and rhythmically how our feathered friends can turn trees into a forest of playful call-and-response. A catchy yet wary pavane, Sol Enganador has Friedlander plucking out a catchy, baroque-tinged backdrop for Serpa’s nebulous vocalese, Laubrock finally floating into the picture – then things get crazy!

The Future is a chillingly rhythmic duo piece for vocals and cello, Serpa drawing on Virginia Woolf as an update on the Sex Pistols; historical mashups have never been so apt. The next track, Listening is even more sparse, Serpa and Laubrock rising to the top of their ranges for austere harmonies as Friedlander holds down a sparse rhythm.

The trio develop Storm Coming from Laubrock’s terse, overtone-spiced intro to a series of hypnotic cloudbank phrases, in an Anna Thorvaldsottir vein. Then Serpa returns to neo-baroque for Woman, singing a text by Irigaray that “exposes the invisibility of motherhood, the lack of support women artists receive as mothers,” as she puts it. And she’s right: how many women artists do you know whose careers went on ice the moment the kid was born?

Quiet Riot is not a tribute to a headbanging one-hit-wonder rock band from the 80s, but a coyly bubbly, minimalist, briskly strolling exercise in counterpoint. The trio close with Cantar Ao Fim, whose intro Serpa came up with singing by herself in the mountains one evening: its starkly circling, distantly Andalucian modalities make a gorgeous coda. It’s rare to find three artists who can so seamlessly merge classical, jazz improvisation and new music.

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April 3, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Singer Sara Serpa’s New Multimedia Project Examines the Aftereffects of Imperialism

Sara Serpa is one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. She got her big break collaborating with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake – their  2010 album Camera Obscura is a masterpiece of menacing nocturnal music across all genres. Since then, her work has encompassed her own cinematic, often lush compositions, her role in John Zorn’s otherworldly Mycale chorale and an endless series of rewarding new projects and collaborations: there’s a restlessness in most everything she does. Her latest project was springboarded when she discovered a family archive of material relating to her native Portugal and its former colony, Angola, in the 1960s. You want uneasy? Serpa’s bringing that to a multimedia performance this Saturday night, Sept 16 at 7:30 PM in a trio show with harpist Zeena Parkins and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner at the Drawing Center at 35 Wooster St. in SoHo. This is one of the increasingly frequent series booked by Zorn around town; cover is $20.

Like every other major jazz artist, Serpa has to spend a lot of time on the road. Her most recent New York concert was a beguiling and unexpectedly amusing duo performance with her Mycale bandmate and longtime vocal sparring partner Sofia Rei in the West Village back in June. Completely a-cappella, the two made their way methodically through constant dynamic shifts, in a mix of originals, a handful of south-of-the-border folk tunes and several numbers from Rei’s album of radical reinventions of Violeta Parra classics, El Gavilan.

It’s easy to see why Rei and Serpa are friends. Rei is a cutup and will go way outside the box without any prompting, to the remote fringes of extended vocal technique. And she can sing anything. Serpa is serious, focused, purposeful to the nth degree: she doesn’t waste notes and has an instantly recognizable sound. Yet she’s always pushing herself. “Welcome to our crazy project,” she told the crowd with a wry grin. And at one moment late in the set, while Rei swooped and dove and shifted into what could have been birdsong, Serpa rolled her eyes, echoing the melody further down the scale, as if to say, “I can’t believe I just sang that.”

Unlik what they do in Mycale, the two didn’t harmonize much. Instead, they took contrasting roles, often exchanging rhythmic blips and bounces, a funhouse mirror of gentle, emphatic, wordless notes. Without Marc Ribot’s guitar, the material from El Gavilan often took on more gravitas: for example, a less rhythmic, more stately take of Casamiento de Negros, and a considerably condensed, airy version of the title track. And when there were harmonies, they were acerbic, and bracingly astringent, and warily rapturous. At the end of the set, another of Mycale’s brilliant voices, Aubrey Johnson joined them and added her signature lustre to the mix. Not having seen Johnson sing her own material in a long time, it would have been an awful lot of fun to stick around to see her lead her own band. But by then it was time to head to Brooklyn.

September 12, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mycale’s Sara Serpa Enchants the Stone

If Sara Serpa quit right now, her body of work would still leave her a major figure in the history of early 21st century jazz and beyond-category vocal music. As one small example, consider the influence of the addition of Serpa’s otherworldly vocalese on Asuka Kakitani‘s landmark Bloom album a couple years ago. Yet, one suspects that Serpa’s best years are still ahead of her. This week through September 20, the individual members of Mycale – the vocal quartet John Zorn assembled, with Serpa, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei and Malika Zarra – are booking the Stone, an audience-friendly way to discover the eclectic and distinctive work of each of these singer/composers. With two sets a night, 8 and 10 PM, there are plenty of enticing shows, especially the album release show for Mycale’s new one at 8 PM this Saturday the 19th.

Last night the late set was Serpa’s, leading her City Fragments sextet. As the group made their way gently, pointillistically and hypnotically into the opening Andre Matos composition, listening to Serpa blend voices with the similarly lustrous-timbred Aubrey Johnson conjured such resonant radiance that it didn’t seem fair. Sofia Rei, who has the powerful low register that those two do not, perfectly completed the vocal frontline.

And yet, as unselfconsciously mesmerizing as those voices were, the number belonged to Matos, Serpa’s longtime collaborator. It’s so rare to see a guitarist with the depth of vision that he brought into play, being able to see this music from five thousand feet and realize it for all its uneasily majestic heights without cluttering it. This number had elements of 70s Morricone crime jazz and David Gilmour angst, but with neither the busyness of the former nor the bluster of the latter. Matos’ lingering, austere lines were like a distillation of both, reduced to most impactful terms. Underneath it all, bassist Matt Brewer supplied a bubbling tar-trap low end while drummer Tyshawn Sorey shuffled and spun an intricate web of cymbals, adding the occasional, stark, emphatic hit when least expected.

Serpa’s long suite after that again featured a similarly intricate, steady lattice of three-way vocal counterpoint, in the same vein as the new Mycale album. The three womens’ gentle bell-tone harmonies often gave way to mysterious, almost inaudible, fragmentary segues, Matos’s stiletto guitar often joining as a fourth voice in the choir, building to an unexpected, knifes-edge, sometimes darkly bluesy apprehension as it went on. Serpa’s spoken-word segments contemplated the human race’s alienation from nature, and a possible return to it, imbuing the work with a defiant, mid-80s punk-jazz edge. It was a characteristically ambitious move for Serpa, oldschool European intellectual to the core, constantly finding new ways to ground her ethereal sonic explorations in relevant concrete terms. The three women brought the night full circle with a radically reinvented, gently lilting take of an old fado hit. Serpa next performs with Mycale at the Stone this week on September 17 at 8, with Ikue Mori sitting in with her trusty laptop and its bottomless well of percussion samples. Cover is $15.

September 16, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

November 14, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

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

Sara Serpa Transcends Everything

The theme of jazz singer/composer Sara Serpa’s show last night at the Cornelia St. Cafe was travel. It was all about loneliness, and quiet determination, and ultimately transcendence, something every true adventurer inevitably finds when confronted with challenges they’d never have met if they’d stayed in their comfort zone. Originally from Portugal, now making her home in New York, Serpa obviously knows a lot about that firsthand. Her stage presence is demure bordering on shy: her band intros and announcements between songs didn’t often reach the back of the room. But her vocals were as vivid as her stunningly original, memorable songs, most of them without words. Many of them went on for ten minutes or more, in a somewhat marathon set that literally heated up the room: one can only imagine how hot it must have been onstage. In an unadorned, vibratoless, crystalline delivery with a clarity so pure it was scary, Serpa sang mostly carefully chosen and stunningly nuanced vocalese, backed by an inspired cast including Andre Matos on guitar, Marcus Gilmore on drums, Ben Street on bass and Kris Davis on piano.

Most of the set was new material. The first song, Serpa explained, was inspired by John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie: “The music suits the landscape,” she explained, specifically, a San Francisco park. Over bass and guitar, she delivered a brief spoken-word interlude, her vocalese matter-of-fact and persevering with Davis’ stark block chords and Street’s pulsing bass, finally reaching up and parting the clouds triumphantly. The second number moved from variations on Davis’ pensive, terse broken chords to a gorgeously warm, swirling section featuring some gently incisive, vintage Jerry Garcia-inflected guitar from Matos into slowly fading, circular piano. A moodily syncopated, brilliantly understated number in Portuguese was the most trad moment of the night; the next song hinted at bossa nova, through murky, subterranean shifts in the low registers to an unexpectedly jaunty Serpa climb out of the morass, a cleverly circling drum solo and a sudden, cold ending.

Serpa’s new album Camera Obscura, with Ran Blake, is rich with noir ambience (and arguably the year’s best), and as much as there were tinges of this all night, they took it to the next level with a long partita, Gilmore’s artful cymbal work lowlighting Davis’ macabre music-box piano, Serpa maintaining an air of mystery all the way up to Gilmore’s decision to thump around and move the corpse. From the audience’s response, the most stunning moment of the night was a wrenchingly intense, barely three-minute version of Meaning of the Blues, vividly evoking Julie London’s wounded resignation but taking it to a logical, defeated extreme, Serpa’s careful enunciation leaving no doubt as to how badly it would end. At the end, there was a good five seconds of silence before the crowd exploded in applause. The show closed with Ten Long Days of Rain, from Serpa’s 2008 album Praia, an expansive, Radiohead-inflected pop-jazz showcase for her more playful, witty side, notably a cheerfully winking vocalese solo with bluesy soprano sax inflections. Serpa’s next NYC gig is on 10/4 at 9 at Tea Lounge in Park Slope with the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment