Sara Serpa / Ran Blake
At a time when so many singers and accompanists play it safe, it’s refreshing to hear vocalist Sara Serpa and pianist Ran Blake do something different—maybe even risky—with the standard jazz song repertoire. Their second album together, Aurora (November 1st 2012, Clean Feed), gives listeners a deeper and more intimate view of one of the most remarkable partnerships in jazz. Recorded live in concert at Lisbon’s Auditório da Culturgest and at private session at the theater the day before, the music covers a wide range. Some of it humorous, at other times it is imbued with a sense of tragedy or tender romance, but at all times it is daring. It’s little wonder that All About Jazz critic Ken Dryden said of their debut release Camera Obscura (Inner Circle) “the magical blend of Blake's piano with Serpa’s voice proves captivating.”
The musical relationship between Blake and Serpa, which began as mentor and student when Serpa attended Boston’s New England Conservatory, has deepened. “I feel I am a bit more mature,” Serpa says. “The first album was much more experimental for me, since I didn't know what would it sound like. This second album is almost like a rebirth of the duo, now much more assured of its identity. I feel Ran and I are more comfortable playing with each other and have developed a very good relationship in and outside the music world.”
Working together they selected a unique set of songs to perform. Few pianists have as broad and deep a knowledge of jazz song repertoire as Ran Blake. So it’s no surprise that there are some rarely played gems heard on Aurora. Serpa has a keen understanding of melody and lyrics and made very personal selections as well. “To learn this new repertoire was a good experience,” Serpa says. “This repertoire is almost like time travel for me. Ran picked songs from old movies, songs he used to play when he was young, or songs sung by singers we both love. It was great for me to learn these songs and where they came from, and to try to make them mine. There are some subjects that are timeless and will always be universal. I picked songs that I felt were important for their words.”
Blake suggested the rarely heard ballad, “Saturday,” which Sarah Vaughn recorded early in her career. Two lovely songs written for Abbey Lincoln by the under-recognized composer R.B. Lynch, “When Autumn Sings” and “Love Lament,” feature lyrics by the late vocalist. The light-hearted “Moonride” was originally recorded by Chris Connor, another mutual favorite of Blake and Serpa. Blake dug into his vast knowledge of film for “Dr. Mabuse,” a melody appearing in Konrad Elfer’s film score to Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. He picked “The Band Played On” because it appears in the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Serpa is especially enamored of the words to “Last Night When We Were Young,” a rueful meditation on the highs and lows of romance. (Pay special attention when she sings the line, “Today the world is old.”) “Cansaço,” a Portuguese fado first recorded by Amália Rodrigues in 1958, is also a song about the search for the meaning of life and love. Serpa goes far out on an artistic limb and gives an unaccompanied performance of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” whose chilling lyrics make it one of the most challenging songs in the jazz canon.
To work with the unorthodox and utterly original Blake, Serpa needs a firm understanding of a song’s melody and words. Blake mercurial, but always empathetic, accompaniment tests her grasp of these fundamentals, but also inspires her to take greater creative freedom with tempo, pacing, harmony, and timbre. On “Saturday,” the give and take between Serpa and Blake is the key to the originality of their rendition. Serpa strikes a vulnerable and forlorn tone in keeping with the song’s words, but her phrasing and dynamics reshape the song. Blake, an expert at setting off singers, leaves space for the voice to shine through, uses unexpected chords, and sometimes echoes Serpa phrasing. Their communication on “Dr. Mabuse” is especially close, too. Serpa’s wordless singing remains focused on the melody, but she is also alert to Blake’s quirky logic. The melody of “Cansaço” is haunted by sadness and Serpa inhabits it with total emotional commitment. Blake comes at it from different directions, deepening it, undercutting it, rhythmically supporting it, and sometimes letting the voice hang suspended alone with its melancholy. With Serpa and Blake, nothing is taken for granted, no song is performed by rote, each tune is an opportunity for musical and emotional adventure.
New York-based vocalist and composer Sara Serpa “doesn’t sing songs as much as she becomes part of them,” says writer Phil DiPietro. Since moving to New York, she has become not only an in-demand sideman, but a band leader in her own right. Her 2008 debut CD as a leader, Praia (Inner Circle) earned wide critical praise and attention. “Serpa has crafted the debut of 2008 by innovating in the way all jazz innovators have done before her—speaking, in this case singing, with her own voice,” said All About Jazz. In his Jazziz review of her most recent album as a leader, Mobile (Inner Circle), Jon Garelick writes, “she creates music any trumpeter or saxophonist would be proud of — varied in texture and dynamics, elastic in rhythm, but with a core motivic logic that seems to emerge spontaneously from one phrase to the next.” All About Jazz New York raved, “Her voice is light and elastic, sporting a fierce intellect. Couple this with a vision/sense of humor and the result is a radioactive type of 21st Century Beat Poetry.... Serpa is searching, and her search continues to provide compelling and provocative music.” In addition to leading her quintet, she also works in a duet with guitarist André Matos. Her contributions to Greg Osby’s 9 Levels (Inner Circle) were cited as a highlight of the alto saxophonist’s album. “Serpa is especially impressive, her wordless vocals locked to Osby’s sax lines in perfect tune,” wrote Peter Margasak in the Chicago Reader.
In a career that now spans six decades, MacArthur “Genius Grant” winning pianist Ran Blake has created a unique niche in improvised music as an artist and educator. With a characteristic mix of spontaneous solos, modern classical tonalities, the great American blues and gospel traditions, and themes from classic Film Noir, Blake’s singular sound has earned a dedicated following all over the world. All About Jazz writer Henry Smith praises “Blake’s noir-like approach to the piano, with his open sense of harmony and time as well as the deep and beautiful melancholy which ingrains his playing … Never once does a cliché emerge from his fingers as he infuses these works with a personal and carefully chosen character all his own.” Blake’s musical legacy includes nearly 40 albums on some of the world’s finest jazz labels, some the best of which are duets with singers such as Jeanne Lee, Christine Correa, and Dominique Eade. Since 1968, Blake has been a groundbreaking educator at Boston’s New England Conservatory where he was the founding director of the Third Stream (now Contemporary Improvisation) Department which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
The combination of veteran Blake and newcomer Serpa is a May-September pairing that creates music that’s both fresh and exciting, and timelessly relevant to the human condition.
Philip DiPietro, All About Jazz