LITERATURE INSPIRES VOCALIST SARA SERPA’S STUNNING NEW RELEASE
* Second album as a leader showcases her wide range as vocalist and composer with her new quintet *
“Sara Serpa is the magical voice.”—Ran Blake, pianist
“Serpa’s vocal style resists description and defies the task of identifying precursors or analogs.”
— Franz A. Matzner, All About Jazz
— “Sara Serpa is cool all over, from conception to execution. She’s got a style just about locked down.”
— New York Times
Mobile (Inner Circle) shows just how far vocalist-composer Sara Serpa has traveled as an artist in the
few short years since she arrived in New York. After coming to the world’s attention as a member of
Greg Osby’s group in 2008 and further establishing her credentials in duet with pianist Ran Blake on
last year’s Camera Obscura, Serpa now sets off firmly on her own journey with a ravishing new
release as the leader of a quintet featuring guitarist André Matos, keyboardist Kris Davis, bassist
Ben Street, and drummer Ted Poor. Inspired by the literature of travel and self-discovery, the far
ranging album brilliantly showcases her remarkable abilities as an interpreter of lyrics, an improviser,
an ensemble member, and composer. The versatility and originality that led All About Jazz to call her
“the freshest vocalist on the scene at the moment” has never been more in evidence.
A native of Lisbon, Portugal, Serpa has been turning heads with her unique and innovative approach
to jazz singing. As Alan Young describes in Lucid Culture, “In an unadorned, vibratoless, crystalline
delivery with a clarity so pure it was scary, Serpa sang mostly carefully chosen and stunningly
nuanced vocalese.” Mobile showcases some of her best improvising on record so far. Her supple
voice, strong with an almost glassy brightness, seems infinitely flexible, equally capable of wild leaps
throughout her considerable range or long, flowing lines of graceful contours or short phrases that
add a percussion kick to her solos. On “Sequoia Gigantis” and “Pilgrimage to Armanath,” she shapes
notes carefully, narrowing and expanding them, using dynamics to create pulsing tension and
release, while subtle colors and textures brighten and darken her lines. She’s just as capable an
interpreter of lyrics, as the touchingly vulnerable performances of “If” and “Sem Razao” show.
“My role is the one of a musician,” Serpa says, “I don't have to be soloing all the time or just
interpreting songs. Basically I want to be able to do with my voice what instrumentalists do with their
instruments—to use it, to sing, to be part of an ensemble. Every instrument has its own challenges or
limitations, but the main goal is to be a complete musician, with good ears and a sense of rhythm,
melody, and harmony. I just want to contribute what feels better for each tune and for the message I
want to transmit with it.
“I am fascinated with the sound of the voice, the resonance it has, its power as well,” she continues.
“With or without words, I feel like the human sound is very touching and deep. That's why I like so
much to just use my voice as a musical instrument. Words are good to transmit a message, to create
a state of mind, to tell a story. But I like to think that I am telling stories with my melodies, because
that's really what's happening.
Her love of storytelling is front and center on Mobile, most of which features compositions inspired by
Serpa’s reading of fiction and nonfiction travel literature. As she thought about what united the various
books she’d been reading, she realized that most of the authors or characters “were all solitary
travelers, adventurers encouraged by the discovery of the unknown, spirits filled with curiosity. Each
song is definitely my vision of certain episode or scene of books I have read.”
For instance, “Sequoia Gigantis” is Serpa’s impressions of John Steinbeck’s visit to the redwoods in
Travels with Charley. “I imagined a magical and mysterious place,” she says. “After the recording I
had the chance to see redwoods myself. It was even more magical than I expected, but I think I have
captured the forest’s silence and powerful energy.” “Pilgrimage to Armanath” is inspired by a trip to a
mountain cave in V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, “Throughout the book, he is in constant conflict
with himself and his own culture,” she explains. “But he's at peace with himself when he follows the
pilgrimage to the mountain Armanath. This song is about that peaceful feeling and the journey.”
Journalist Ryzard Kapuscinki’s reporting supplied the impetus for “Traveling with Kapuscinski.” “He
saw so many beautiful things,” she says, “but also so many ugly and terrible aspects of the human
nature. This is about those mixed feelings you get when you get to know the history of the world.”
“City of Light, City of Darkness” derives from Gente da Terceira Classe by Portuguese novelist Jose
Rodrigues Migueis. “There's a chapter about a man who cleans the subway. He sees the daylight
through the ceilings of the subway and occasionally there's rice that falls from the street (when here
are weddings). The man collects the rice,” Serpa says.
The quintet doesn’t try to recreate the scenes, but to develop the powerful atmosphere and musical
ideas of each piece. For instance, “Gold Diggin’ Ants,” based on a bizarre passage by ancient Greek
historian Herodotus that recounts the antics of fox-sized, furry “ants” in the Persian desert, features a
zig-zag melody and a pliable tempo. The band maintains the busy ant-hill energy in a brilliantly
sustained collective improvisation. “Ulysses’s Costume,” a meditation on the hero of the Odyssey
returning home to Ithaca and recounting his adventures, includes some of Serpa’s most compelling
musical storytelling, in a solo that develops a narrative flow from discrete short phrases into ever
more complex, sinuous lines. Davis’ piano solo on “Ahab’s Lament” captures the spiritual turmoil of
the obsessed captain in Melville’s Moby Dick.
Andre Matos’ crystalline acoustic guitar solo sustains the melancholy of the solitary traveler on
“Corto,” a portrait of Corto Maltese, the gypsy sailor protagonist of artist Hugo Pratt’s graphic novels.
Serpa’s lyrics, sung in Portuguese captures the both the beauty and pain of the wandering life:
“Infinite horizon, stars, the moon, the sun burns and knows who am I, what am I … Ah the sky and
the sea, a wave speaks to me: go far away, don't stop … Don't look back.”
Two compositions not inspired by travel literature, nevertheless convey a sense of larger-than-life
emotion. “If,” Serpa’s setting of E.E. Cummings’ poem about lost love, features achingly vulnerable
solos from Serpa and Matos. “Sem Razão,” (“Without a Reason”) the only tune on the album not
written by Serpa, is a rueful Portuguese fado about “love, fate, and its misfortunes,” Serpa explains. It
features some of her most emotionally exposed singing on the album.
The solitary wanderers of these songs and literary works clearly have a resonance both personal and
universal for Serpa. Like them, she is on her own path of self-examination and discovery. Here’s
hoping it’s a long, eventful journey.