The camera obscura is an ancient optical device used by artists and scientists, in which light passes through a small opening in a darkened box and projects images of great clarity. It’s an appropriate metaphor for what vocalist Sara Serpa and pianist Ran Blake do on their duo album, Camera Obscura (September 20, Inner Circle). By letting songs pass through the lens of their artistry, they project the sound and meaning of the tunes with a startling, almost magical, clarity. In one of the most arresting performances of the year, they bring a freshness and creativity to their interpretations of standards, jazz classics, and originals that puts each song in a new light.
Serpa first encountered Blake while she was a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston. “After I heard him play an incredible solo piece at a Jaki Byard tribute concert, I decided that I wanted to study with him,” she says. “In the beginning it was intimidating. Ran is not a typical piano player who will follow the rules. He might change the tempo or the key right in the middle of the song and you have to be really aware of what is going on. It's always challenging, thinking that you never know what will happen next. During our lessons at his place, we created a repertoire without knowing that we were actually creating one.
“We performed a couple of times together and Ran played at my graduation recital,” she continues. “Last year Ran came to NY and we performed at the Bleeker Theater. It was after that concert that I invited him to record all these songs that we had been playing together for almost two years. I felt that we had created a great identity as a duo and that it was worth documenting it. In the studio, the arrangements happened spontaneously. I mean, we knew how we wanted to develop some them, where we would create the climax of the song, but mainly, everything happened on the moment.”
Working with Blake has helped Serpa grow as a singer in many ways. “I have learned with Ran that it's all about the melody,” she says. “I have to know the melody really well and be strong when I am singing it. Ran will not be playing the melody with me, and sometimes he might play something very dissonant behind me, so I have to keep going, interacting with him, but never forgetting the common ground, the melody.
“Before working with Ran, singing lyrics was something hard for me, especially in English,” continues Serpa, a native of Lisbon, Portugal. “I know English, but I always wondered whether I could express any emotions through the language. The lessons with Ran allowed me to explore the character of each song. I had to figure out what I am saying and how I can express it. Now, I feel I have developed a special relationship with these songs. The words are really important in this project and we both try to paint or design different scenes for each song. We play in a very dramatic way. Suddenly I’m an actress and Ran is painting the background.”
Like a great actress, Serpa brings the power of story telling to the songs, illuminating them in intriguing ways. Her voice is as clear as a windowpane, a transparent presence that lets the words and melody of songs like “When Sunny Gets Blue” and “Driftwood” shine clear. Sometimes she holds individual notes to heighten their beauty and create tension, as she does in her sinuous interpretation of “Our Fair Cat.” She can twist phrases to bring out some new aspect of a melody, like she does with the discrete freedoms she takes with “April in Paris.” On “Get Out of Town,” she phrases words and music into an unexpectedly revealing and emotional statement that casts familiar material in a new light. The vibratoless, instrumental quality of her voice allows her to approach Blake’s “The Short Life of Barbara Monk” like a horn player, creating a pared down, unadorned performance of pure melody. Melody is also the essence of “I Should Care” and “Nutty,” readings of two classic tunes whose impact is heightened by their extreme brevity.
Blake, as Serpa notes, is an unpredictable, but always empathetic, accompanist. His unorthodox and utterly original approach to supporting singers somehow shows off a voice to greatest advantage. For instance, his cinematic style creates a backdrop of idiosyncratic subtleties that place Serpa’s melancholy reading of “Driftwood” in high relief. He creates vivid musical imagery on ‘Our Fair Cat” by pouncing on his chords like a tabby surprising its prey. His noir stride on “The Short Life of Barbara Monk” evokes the mournful ghost of her father Thelonious. Sometimes, he creates the most dramatic effect by not playing at all, such has when he drops out of “Folhas” and lets Serpa carry the haunting melody all by herself. Together, Serpa and Blake discover new things about themselves and the songs they perform.
New York-based vocalist and composer Sara Serpa “makes an unexpected and deceptively simple bid to challenge nothing less than the very concept of the role of a jazz vocalist in a small ensemble,” according to Phil DiPietro in All About Jazz. “Serpa doesn’t sing songs as much as she becomes part of them.” While in her teens, she attended the Conservatory of Music in Lisbon, studying piano and singing, setting the basis of her musical vocabulary. Serpa then earned an undergraduate degree in Social Work, while maintaining her musical interests. Deciding that music was the direction she wanted to go, she attended Berklee College of Music and later the New England Conservatory, where she got her Masters in Jazz Performance in 2008. Among her teachers were Danilo Perez, Dominique Eade, Theo Bleckmann, Hal Crook, and Jerry Bergonzi. Her debut CD as a leader, Praia, released on Greg Osby’s Inner Circle label in 2008, earned wide critical praise. “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. That same year her contributions to 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.
On Camera Obscura, Serpa, who’s made a name for herself as a singer who performs without words, reveals another side of her ever-deepening art. To put her personal stamp on these songs, she needed a partner like Ran Blake, a musician as willing to take chances with a song as she is.