Sara Serpa: A Musical Journey
Vocalist and composer Sara Serpa is one of the most original and innovative musicians to emerge since the turn of the century. She has already made an indelible mark on the modern music scene in the span of a mere four years. Her unique style of vocalese allows her to utilize the full range of her exquisite and clear voice with the agility of an instrumentalist and stand out of the crowd as a sublime interpreter and a bold improviser. Her original pieces, meanwhile, reflect an imaginative approach to composition that matches her spontaneous creativity. Her critically acclaimed debut, Praia (Inner Circle, 2008), showcased her band-leading abilities as she headed a sextet of superlatively talented players, including the inimitable saxophonist Greg Osby.
A native of Lisbon, Portugal, Serpa studied classical piano and voice as a teenager. While in college, pursuing a degree in social work, she was drawn to jazz and augmented her musical education at the school affiliated with Lisbon’s Hot Club Jazz. After graduation, she moved to Boston and enrolled first at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and then the New England Conservatory, earning a Master’s degree in jazz performance in 2008. Almost immediately Afterwards, she moved to New York and fast established herself as one of the freshest and most versatile performers in jazz.
Her adventurous yet disciplined approach to music brought about her career’s meteoric rise. Her second album, Camera Obscura (Inner Circle, 2010), a collaborative effort with her mentor and friend, pianist Ran Blake is a haunting and sparse expression of complex musical ideas with often a cinematic flair. An avid bibliophile Serpa drew inspiration from her favorite literary works for her third release as a leader, Mobile (Inner Circle, 2011). The dynamic, sophisticated and memorable record lead to her gracing the cover of the Spring 2012 issue of Jazziz magazine.
Her latest, Aurora (Clean Feed, 2012), is her second session with Blake, a set of live duets recorded in Lisbon.
All About Jazz: Aurora is a sparse and hauntingly beautiful work and your second collaboration with Ran Blake; can you tell us about this live date in Lisbon?
Sara Serpa: Thank you, it makes me happy that you like it and enjoyed listening to it. This was the second time Ran came to Lisbon to perform, and it was a great experience, since we had an amazing hall and piano to record the album. We decided to do it in two sessions; one was the day before the concert, and then the concert itself. The day of the concert was an extremely sad day, as it was the day we heard of Bernardo Sassetti’s tragic death. Bernardo was an incredible Portuguese pianist and he wrote the liner notes for our first album, Camera Obscura. We were very emotional on that day.
AAJ: Ran Blake, of course is well known for his work with adventurous vocalists, what was it like having him as a mentor?
SS: The mentorship evolved into a great friendship. Ran is one of my best friends, and one of the most generous musicians I have ever met. Also, he is a musician that loves singers. It’s always unpredictable to sing with him, and I do enjoy those moments of not knowing what will happen and going with the flow. I feel it’s very important to learn with our elders. The way they perceive, listen and learned music is really different and deep. Ran Blake has incredible ears and that’s the most important thing he tries to pass on to his students—teach your ear, learn music by ear, listen above all.
AAJ: On both your studio recording with Blake, Camera Obscura and the live Aurora you cover an elegantly broad variety of standards and originals. How did you choose those particular songs?
SS: The choice of standards has been a bit accidental, but always follows our taste. Either these are songs that Ran loves and suggests we play, songs that I love or songs that we both love.
AAJ: What was the difference for you between the two recordings? How did each setting affect your spontaneous creativity?
SS: The first album was a big adventure for me. I had been singing with Ran in his private studio for a year, and we had built a repertoire, but going into a recording session studio was kind of crystallizing that moment. There wasn’t much pressure, it was more like let’s see what comes out. We did in two days, rarely did more than a take on each song, and it was recorded with very minimal equipment. Still, it sounds great, due to the work of Pete Rende, who mixed it and really understood the sound we were looking for. Aurora was more planned, as we were preparing a concert as well. We also played along with three movies scenes, and that was completely improvised (Dr. Mabuse is one example of it). We decided also that each one should prepare a solo piece. But having an audience definitely changes the moment, is gives you more adrenaline. I felt like I was sharing our duo bareness with a very big hall, full of people.
AAJ: You come from a country with rich musical and particularly song heritage. How did that influence your own development as a vocalist?
SS: Curiously, Fado didn’t influence me at all until I moved to the United States. I only started listening to Fado around 2006 or so. My musical education started with classical music, and although there were other genres played at my house, like Brazilian music, rock, and later on in my teens, more punk and electronic music, Fado wasn’t that much present. I recently understood that Fado was associated with the dictatorship in Portugal that ended in 1974 and my parents were part of the generation who fought against this regime, so naturally they did not listen to Fado.
AAJ: Having had western classical training ,what attracted you to improvised music and particularly jazz?
SS: I studied piano for 10 years and studied classical singing as well. And during all those years, I was always afraid of failing in any musical context. Going to a jazz school and entering this new world opened many doors for me, as I could use all my musical skills and impulses and still create something, interacting with other musicians. To learn harmony and improvisation was something that unfortunately I never explored while at the Lisbon Conservatory, and once I started understanding more about it, it allowed me to find my own style and voice within it. And jazz, it’s such a sophisticated music. It is so complex and advanced, from [trumpeter/singer] Louis Armstrong to [singer] Abbey Lincoln.Its social context and message was also something that attracted me, as there was such a vital energy about the way the old school musicians played.
AAJ: What musicians and records influenced your growth as an artist?
SS: Some musicians that influenced my growth as an artist were my teachers: Ran Blake, [pianist] Danilo Pérez, Greg Osby, and [singer] Dominique Eade. Not only they are amazing musicians, but also they are amazing musicians who have their own voice in the jazz world. Ran Blake and Danilo Perez really gave me wings to fly, encouraging me and giving me so many opportunities to be a better musician. They also taught me the social importance of the music we are making, and through their brightness and talent, showed me a very human side of jazz. . Greg Osby listened to my music and gave me a lot of opportunities to perform and record with his band, and basically he introduced me to the NY scene, when I joined him at the Vanguard—that was a great school as well. Dominique Eade welcomed me in Boston and opened the NEC doors to me, accepting me as her student, while I was searching for a creative environment. Generosity, competence, trust and solidarity is something very important in music and all of them in their own way, taught me that.
It’s hard to name some records. I can name musicians who influenced me as student, at school: Miles Davis (with his second quintet), John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Hermeto Pascoal, Theo Bleckmann, Paul Motian, Tom Jobim, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Mehldau, Bill Evans, Louis Armstrong. Chico Buarque, Björk, Wayne Shorter, Abbey Lincoln, Ella Fitzgerald, Mark Turner, Vardan Ovsepian, André Matos, Maria João … but the list keeps changing, and coming back and forth, each month, each year, as the growth never stops….
AAJ: What are your “desert island” discs and why?
SS: Oh, this is a tough question. To explain why I love certain music… here are a few. Bu these days, with the iPod, do I really need just to pick a few?
Carmen McRae—Bittersweet (Koch, 1964)
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong—Ella & Louis (Verve, 1956)
Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Kohn—Brahms Four Hand Piano Music Vol. 4 Ein Deustches Requiem (Naxos, 1999)
Tom Jobim—Matita Perê (Polygram, 1973)
Sarah Vaughan—Live at Mr. Kelly’s (Emarcy, 1957)
Pixies—Come On Pilgrim (4AD, 1987)
Farafina—Fasco Denou (Real World, 1993)
Miles Davis—Nefertiti (Columbia, 1968)
Charlie Haden—The Golden Number (A&M, 1977)
Ran Blake—Wende (Owl, 1976)
Deerhoof—Deerhoof vs. Evil (Polyvinyl, 2011)
Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell—Sound of Love (Winter & Winter, 1995)
Béla Bartók}}— Bartók Plays Bartók (Pearl, 1995}
Milton Nascimento—Milton (EMI, 1970)
Abbey Lincoln—Straight Ahead (Candid, 1961)
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane—Live at the Five Spot (Blue Note, 1958)
Meredith Monk—Impermanence (ECM, 2008)
Duke Ellington—Piano Reflections (Capitol, 1953)
Johann Sebastian Bach—The Art of the Fugue
AAJ: What were your experiences coming from Lisbon to Boston and then to New York? If so how did those experiences impact your artistic development?
SS: It’s very hard to describe my experiences coming from Portugal to the USA. Just try to imagine coming from a small school in Lisbon, that doesn’t have more than 200 students, to Berklee, where you have 4,000 students from all over the world. And to be alone for the first time in a foreign country, with the ideal of studying music. With tough winters in Boston…and then going to NEC where I met wonderful teachers who really encouraged me and supported my music, like Danilo Pérez, Dominique Eade and Ran Blake. This all meant an opening of my mind, beyond what I could imagine. I was able to explore and work hard on my music, in a really focused way. And learn even more about jazz, from direct sources.
And then New York, where there are so many musicians, so many people, and where the scene is so competitive. And then you have to pay your bills, you have to keep working on your music, it’s like a positive struggle. It taught me that nothing is for granted, and if you really want something to happen, it has to come from you and not from others. And there are so many incredible musicians in this city that inspire me and teach me every day. To be in New York helped me to see things in a different perspective. The goal is just to keep doing the music I love, be a better musician and person.
AAJ: Your debut album, Praia, contains intriguing original compositions, presumably inspired by Cape Verdean themes, what is your connection to Cape Verde?
SS: I wonder why you ask me about Cape Verde, as there’s nothing related to it on that record. Praia means “beach” in Portuguese, and it was what I missed the most during my first years in Boston, and that feeling gave some impulse composing that music. Those songs were my first attempts of writing music, and they had a stamp on it, which was “I miss my home, I miss my friends, but I also love my new life here.”
AAJ: It is quite interesting and unique that your compositions on Mobile reflected the spirit of literary works yet your singing was primarily wordless vocalese. What inspired you in those particular eclectic mix of books?
SS: It was very random. A few months after moving to New York I realized I was only reading books from travelers and adventurous people, about travelers’ struggles, about discovering the unknown. And maybe that was related with what I was experiencing, being in NY and finding my way of living in this city. Each book was a revelation for me, and I loved reading all of them. And I thought that maybe I could try to recreate a scene or a memory from each book into music. I was fortunate to be able to explore this music with [guitarist] André Matos, [pianist] Kris Davis, [bassist] Ben Street and [drummer] Ted Poor, as I think they really understood each song and played it beautifully.
AAJ: Currently you perform leading your own group as well as in duos either with Ran Blake or André Matos. What are the different challenges inherent in each setting?
SS: For the duo setting, there are similar aspects that need to be present: communication, good time, listening, and empathy. We have to be a team.
Singing with Ran Blake is a time travel for me, as there is so much tradition and knowledge in his playing. It always has the surprise element—we might play the same song several times, and although I feel we are following a plot (just like a movie plot), sometimes we do a shorter version, some other times longer, sometimes we modulate to another key, sometimes he stops playing or throws a chord that completely blows me away. At the beginning it was very hard for me, and I realized I had to be really strong when singing the melody of a song, so that he could play whatever he felt like behind me without losing my direction.
Today, I love that feeling of not knowing what is going to happen. I love Ran’s touch, his use of pedals creates another dimension of sound, and besides all this, there’s a lots of experience, life and love in his playing. And although I am singing the melody, I feel I am following him all the time, or almost like a game, sometimes I lead and some other times he leads. His ears are incredible, and that allows to a lot of creativity in his comping, even when playing the simplest melody. Songs and words are the key with this duo, and singing with Ran woke me to this world of the words and to its power. To convey the story, and to follow Ran’s plot for each song is the most important. Also, Ran and I have many years of difference and come from different continents—I always feel I am learning something new.
With André Matos, feel we are both coming from the same place, meaning we have the same background; history and we play a lot together. We live together, we travel together—so much of that communication and shared moments comes out through our music. We also play a lot of original material, and finding my own space in that material is challenging, because I never do the same thing on every song. Sometimes I accompany him, sometimes I don’t sing, sometimes I improvise—to find that balance of when to sing and when to be silent is challenging in some way. Also, there’s a lot of nakedness in a duo setting, we can’t hide behind any other instrument, and we have to accept what comes out without being very judgmental.
AAJ: Do you also engage in other art forms? If so which ones?
SS: I love photography. I went to an Art College for two years, so I draw, I paint and I take photographs. And I love writing as well. But I’ve never exposed it the way I do with the music.
AAJ: Lastly can you tell us a little bit about your Crossing Oceans project?
SS: Crossing Oceans is still a work in progress. It features voice, trombone, tenor sax, guitar, bass (and possibly some percussion). I sing mostly in Portuguese. It is like a story about my perception of Fado, and its origins, that are deeply embedded with the history of Portugal. It started out of my curiosity about Fado music, as I wanted to know more about this song form (I never listened to it before I moved to US) .
My research made me travel in time and think about things that are key to my country’s history, but that no one talks about: the slave trade from Africa to Brazil, the music that came from Brazil to Portugal in the 18th century, (which is when Fado appeared in Lisbon)…so many things. So it’s a Fado project but it’s also my project, it’s a creative approach to it. It is a story told through music.
Sara Serpa & Ran Blake, Aurora (Clean Feed, 2012)
Sara Serpa Mobile (Inner Circle, 2011)
Sara Serpa & Ran Blake, Camera Obscura (Inner Circle, 2010)
Sara Serpa, Praia (Inner Circle, 2008)