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Haunting Singer Sara Serpa Confronts the Genocidal Legacy of European Imperialism in Africa

Sara Serpa is one of the most hauntingly distinctive singers in any style of music to emerge in the past decade or so. She typically sings wordlessly, using her disarmingly clear voice as an instrument, whether with a choir or a band. Her latest project, Recognition – streaming at Bandcamp – confronts the grisly and all too often neglected history of European imperialism in Africa.

This project is also Serpa’s debut as a filmmaker. She took old Super 8 footage from her family’s archival collection made in 1960s Angola under Portuguese colonial rule and assembled a silent film out of it, then wrote the soundtrack. A VOD link to the movie comes with the album; as usual, Serpa has pulled together an inspired cast of creative improvisers for it.

The score opens with Lei Do Indigenato, 1914, a spacious, troubled, sparsely rippling overture that sets the stage for the rest of the record. The second track, Occupation is built around a distantly ominous, circling series of modal riffs from harpist Zeena Parkins and pianist David Virelles, Serpa’s vocals and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s eerily airy phrases rising overhead.

It’s amazing how Serpa opens the third track, The Multi-Racialism Myth, with a seemingly blithe series of octaves, then Virelles and the rest of the band completely flip the script with it. The pianist’s tumbling, Satie-esque flourishes are especially menacing: is this a commentary on how history gets whitewashed?

The same dynamic persists in the steadily marching, sarcastically titled Free Labour. In Beautiful Gardens, Parkins and Virelles build increasingly horror-stricken riffs behind her echoey narration of the great 1950s Negritude-era poet Amilcar Cabral’s witheringly sarcastic depiction of the imperialists’ lives of luxury, contrasting with the details of their murderous rule over the natives.

Turner has never played more lyrically than he does here, harmonizing with Serpa’s steady, uneasy vocalese in Mercy and Caprice. Civilizing Influence – how’s THAT for a sarcastic title? – is a darkly majestic instrumental for sax, piano and harp. The group follow that with Queen Nzinga, a bustling improvisational shout-out to a legendary West African leader who defied thirteen imperialist governors’ attempts at suppressing her; Parkins bends her notes as if playing a Korean gaegeum. As Serpa reminds, in four hundred years of Portuguese oppression, native Angolans’ resistance against the invaders never stopped.

Serpa’s one-women ghost-girl choir over the group’s resolute, bracing march in Absolute Confidence is absolutely chilling. The group slowly shift Control and Oppression into a chilly lockstep. Hannah Arendt found a connection between apartheid in South Africa and the Nazi regime; likewise, how much of the 2020 global lockdown has roots in imperialist oppression?

Propaganda is a return to blithe/sinister dynamics, which then fall apart: nobody buys this lie, no matter how strident it gets! The closing credits theme, Unity and Struggle, is an optimistically if sometimes awkwardly marching setting of another Cabral text, reflecting how African independence often turned out to be a struggle against the puppets of the departed imperialists. Serpa has made a lot of good albums over the years but this is arguably her best, right up there with her 2010 duo album Camera Obscura with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake, If there’s reason for, or the possibility of a music blog existing at the end of 2020, you’ll see this on the best albums of the year page in December.

Since she’s based in New York, it would be illegal for Serpa to play an album release concert, but she is doing a live webcast with brilliant guitarist André Matos on June 28 at 5 PM at the fantastic new jazz streaming portal Art Is Live.

Transcendence and Trials at Winter Jazzfest 2020

One of the high points of Winter Jazzfest 2020 was a rock song.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Firing off clanging, reverb-fanged minor chords from her white Fender Jaguar, Becca Stevens sang her steadily crescendoing anthem I Will Avenge You with just enough distance to make the inevitable all the more grim. Connections to a famous hippie songwriter and steampunk Broadway show aside, it was validating to see her pack the Poisson Rouge to open last night’s Manhattan marathon of shows.

She’s lost none of the livewire intensity she had in the days when she used to front a surrealistically entertaining cover band, the Bjorkestra, ten-odd years ago. Her own material is just as artsy and outside-the-box: it’s what would have been called art-rock back in the 70s, but with a 90s trip-hop influence (Portishead at their most orchestral) instead of, say, Genesis. Drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist Chris Tordini gave a snap to the songs’ tricky metrics, lead guitarist Jan Esbra adding terse colors, keyboardist Michelle Willis bubbling and rippling and soaring with her vocal harmonies. The songs ranged from an uneasily dancing setting of a Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet, to a dizzyingly circling ukulele tune, to Tillery, the subtly soukous-inflected anthem that Stevens typically opens with. “Without love there is nothing,” was the singalong chorus. True enough: that’s why we do this stuff.

A few blocks east at the Zurcher Gallery, singer Sara Serpa raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, or so it seemed at the moment. With barely a pause between songs, she led a tightly focused lustrous quartet – longtime partner and saturnine influence Andre Matos on guitar, Dov Manski on piano and analog synth, and Jesse Simpson on drums – through a glistening, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shatteringly plaintive set of songs without words.

Serpa didn’t sing any actual lyrics until the unexpectedly playful final song, relying instead on her signature vocalese. While she’s best known as a purveyor of misty, airy, frequently noir sonics, she’s developed stunning new power, especially on the low end – although she used that very judiciously. The most haunting song of the night came across as a mashup of Chano Dominguez and Procol Harum at their most quietly brooding, with a ghostly avenger out front. Matos’ steady, purposeful, meticulously nuanced chords and fills anchored Manski’s often otherworldly textures and eerie belltones as Simpson maintained a steady, suspenseful flutter with his bundles.

Over at Zinc Bar, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack led a New York version of her Seismic Belt septet, playing shapeshiftingly emphatic, anthemic, eco-disaster themed material from her fantastic 2019 album of the same name. The music seemed to still be coalescing, but that observation might be colored by the situation where the bar wasn’t letting people stand in the inner room close to the band, as they had in the past, and what was being piped into the front area through a couple of tinny speakers wasn’t enough to compete with a chatty crowd. The bandleader’s soulful, cantabile tone rose and fell gracefully and mingled with the sometimes stark, occasionally lush textures of violinist Sarah Bernstein, violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Lisa Hoppe, expansively dynamic baritone saxophonist Chris Credit, pianist Kai Ono and drummer Jacob Shandling. Boshnack’s voice is full of color and sparkle, just like her horn: she should sing more. Chet Baker may have left us, but Boshnack would be a welcome addition to the trumpeter/singer demimonde.

That there would be such a packed house in the basement of a snooty new Lafayette Street tourist bar, gathered to see the debut of pedal steel paradigm-shifter Susan Alcorn‘s new quintet, speaks to the exponential increase in interest in improvisation at the highest level. That the band had such potent material to work with didn’t hurt. Alcorn’s tunesmithing can be as devastatingly sad as her stage presence and banter is devastatingly funny.

Drummer Ryan Sawyer – most recently witnessed swinging the hell out of a set by Rev. Vince Anderson a couple of weeks ago – sank his sticks into a diving bell of a press roll that Alcorn pulled shivering to the surface in a trail of sparks. Violinist Mark Feldman’s searingly precise downward cadenza out of a long, matter-of-factly circling Michael Formanek bass crescendo was just as much of a thrill. Guitarist Mary Halvorson echoed the bandleader’s sudden swells and sharply disappearing vistas with her volume pedal.

There was a lot of sublime new material in the set. They began with a poignant, 19th century gospel-infused minor-key number that disintegrated into a surreal reflecting pool before returning, austere and darkly ambered. An even more angst-fueled, lingering diptych began as a refection on a battle with food poisoning, Alcorn deadpanned: from the sound of that, it could have killed her. Later portraits of New Mexico mountain terrain and a Utah “circular ruin” gave the band plenty of room to expand on similarly stark themes. The coyly galloping romp out at the end of the catchy, concluding pastoral jazz number offered irresistibly amusing relief.

Winter Jazzfest has expanded to the point where it seems it’s now a lot easier to get in to see pretty much whoever you want to see – at least this year, from this point of view. Even so, there’s always triage. Matthew Shipp at the Nuyorican, what a serendipitous match…but the Nuyorican is a good fifteen-minute shlep from the Bleecker Street strip, just on the cusp of where a taxi driver would think you’re really lame for not hoofing it over to Alphabet City.

Cuban-born pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his irrepressible quartet at Subculture were much closer. There’s always been a fine line between salsa and jazz and for this show, this crew – with Mayquel Gonzalez on trumpet, Gaston Joya on five-string bass and the bandleader’s brother Ruy on drums – sided with bringing the first kind of party. In a spirited duet, it turned out that the bandleader’s bro is a more than competent and equally extrovert pianist, when he wasn’t riffing expertly on his snare like a timbalero. The group shifted from long, vampy, percussive cascades to classically-flavored interludes, including a catchy Leo Brouwer ballad that Lopez-Nussa used as a rollercoaster to engage the crowd. What a beautiful, sonically pristine venue, and what a shame that, beyond a weekly Sunday morning classical concert series, the space isn’t used for music anymore. They probably couldn’t put the Poisson Rouge out of business – who would want that bar’s cheesy Jersey cover bands, anyway – but they could steal all their classical and jazz acts.

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.

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.

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.