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.

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

The JC Sanford Orchestra Rip up the Joint

Barflies at CBGB in 1976 may have reacted to the Ramones the same way the customers at Tea Lounge Monday night reacted to the JC Sanford Orchestra, that is, if laptops had existed the year Johnny Bench put the Yankees out of their misery early in the World Series. Everybody looked up from their keyboards, startled. And pretty much everybody stayed. This unlikely, upscale Park Slope coffee-and-beer joint might or might not end up being to big band jazz what CBGB was to punk, but for now it is the place to see pretty much every good large-scale jazz ensemble in New York that’s not led by a Schneider, a McNeely or the ghost of Mingus. Sanford is its impresario, and this was his group, many of the same cast who’d played so memorably on his Sanford-Schumacher Sound Assembly album from a couple of years ago. Conducting as well as contributing a long, soulful trombone solo on one song, he steered the crew on a mighty swing through a mix of numbers from that album along with plenty of towering, majestic and deceptively playful newer material that often crossed over the line into third stream and soundtrack-style atmospherics. Ceativity leapt from the charts, and the band seized it joyously.

They opened circular and fluttering with Rhythm of the Mind, with solo spots for blippy bass clarinet by Kenny Berger, Ben Kono taking it up warily on clarinet a bit later, the whole band nonchalantly bringing it down for a few bars’ worth of Buddhist chanting like it was the most natural thing for a jazz band in New York to be doing at that particular moment. Chuck and Jinx, a swinging, genial tribute to a man and his cat, saw bassist Aidan Carroll taking a deliberate stroll against Mike Eckroth’s ringing, sparse electric piano, bemused high brass playing the owner (or actually, the owned) while Ted Poor’s drums impersonated the irrepressible, furry creature who, whether or not we admit it, always runs the show. Poor would also elevate the long, shapeshifting Indecent Stretch, a partita of sorts, to magnificent heights, kicking up a storm with the piano and bass, later leading an increasingly agitated crescendo in big, determined steps beneath the rest of the group’s uneasy atmospherics.

An Attempt at Serenity was aptly titled and genuinely tormented in places, Nadje Noordhuis’ trumpet comforting and resolute alternating with guitarist Andrew Green’s vividly twisted, downright evil, bent-note phrasing. Would hope triumph in the end? For awhile it looked like it might, despite distant hints to the contrary that added yet another layer of suspense. It ended quiet, atmospheric and somewhat ambiguously. They wrapped up their first set with a blazing version of Your Word Alone, a big thank-you note to a friend and mentor of Sanford’s who from the sound of things singlehandedly scored him a plum teaching position. The composition gave the band a chance to express considerable humor, especially in the big crescendo that led to the joyous “eureka” moment where the contract (or the check) appears in the mail, violinist Christian Howes (whose latest album with Robben Ford and Eddie Floyd is a treat) ripping casually through an eerie, phantasmagorical solo played through a watery chorus-box effect. Through one tricky false ending after the other, the band quoted liberally from the Mission Impossible theme as individual voices  – notably Kono – appeared and vanished almost in a dub reggae style. The remarkably young audience – many of whom appeared to be high school kids animatedly trading music and doing homework – roared their approval. Hey, big band jazz was the default music of the under-20 crowd seventy years ago. Could happen again.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment