Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

CD Review: Phil Sargent – A New Day

Brooding, thoughtful and emotionally resonant, guitarist Phil Sargent’s new album transcends the jazz label – although he’s backed up by a first-rate cast of jazz players. The instrumentals here are innovatively arranged for an interesting configuration of piano, bass, drums and also a vocalist in place of a horn player. Singer Aubrey Johnson does a terrific job, her vocalese shifting timbres slightly just as Sargent does, utilizing a pitch pedal in places in the same way that Sargent manipulates his tone with his guitar effects. Aside from a Pat Metheny-esque motorway instrumental, which is straight-up rock, and the remarkably nuanced heavy metal menace of the sixth track (a bit of a breather for the band, who’ve stayed within themselves marvelously up to this point), the whole album is a clinic in how to maintain a mood. With some help from guest keyboardist Brian Friedland on organ and piano on the third track, bassist Greg Loughman and drummer Mike Connors carry a lot of emotional weight here with understated grace.

Johnson sets the tone that will dominate throughout right off the bat on the distantly pensive title track, Sargent taking his time to get going and finally taking flight uneasily with a hint of raw distortion as the bass and drums, and guest pianist John Funkhouser – a marvelously rhythmic choice – rattles around behind him, piano solo moving captivatingly from judicious chords to a full-on swing attack. The second track is all contrasts, Johnson’s understated wistfulness against the melody’s buoyant sway. Bass and guitar follow her in turn, downcast: even when Sargent is finally firing off a flurry of eight notes, he’s still looking over his shoulder. You don’t realize how beautiful this song is until it’s almost over. Johnson sings the dark tango-inflected first verse of the following cut over Sargent’s volume-knob swells. It builds – Sargent feels around for his footing and eventually lands with a terse series of chords before leaving the ground with more of them, then Loughman solos as Sargent plays with his volume knob again.

The well-titled Gridlock opens with bass carrying the melody over Sargent’s fingerpicking, growing from unease to fullscale menace and then backing off (the first person to identify what 70s art-rock phrase Sargent is quoting from at around 1:50 – Robin Trower? Jethro Tull? – wins a prize). They wind up the album with a characteristically subtle, bossa-tinged ballad. This won’t be on some people’s lists of the best jazz albums of 2010 but it’s definitely on ours.

June 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 4/17/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Friday’s song is #467:

Saint-Preux – Concerto Pour Une Voix

This is sort of like Freebird for vocalese. Just so you know, we deleted Someone Saved My Life Tonight by Elton John to make room on the list for this bittersweet 1969 song without words, iconic in Europe but little-known elsewhere, Danielle Licari soaring into the uppermost ranges as the orchestra swells behind her. Covered by every obscure golden-voiced woman who’s ever posted anything to youtube, the original remains the best.

April 17, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment