Vocal/piano duets are nothing new in jazz, but when the artists are Sara Serpa and Ran Blake, the predictable elements disappear. Serpa is one of the finest vocalists of her generation. Her flexible voice can conjure vivid aural pictures and her improvisations rival the most adventurous jazz instrumentalists. Blake’s unusual manner of accompanying with sudden fortissimo bursts and dense complex chords might seem to be anathema to a vocalist, but he and Serpa align their vivid musical imaginations to transform classic songs into intense dramatic experiences. “Aurora”, recorded in Lisbon in May 2012, is the second collaboration between Serpa and Blake, and it expands on the territory they explored on the album, “Camera Obscura”. Here, the selections are longer and there is a greater emphasis on the texts. With a charming Portuguese accent and a pure vibratoless voice, Serpa might initially remind listeners of Astrud Gilberto, but her interpretations reveal a much deeper understanding of the music’s subtext. Consider Serpa’s unaccompanied version of “Strange Fruit”: unlike Billie Holiday, Serpa has no first-hand experience with lynchings, but her stark reading with precise declamations of the key words and subtly nuanced dynamics emits an eerie atmosphere that evokes those tragic events. While the prevailing mood of the album is dark and intense, there are lighter moments, including a delightful version of the Chris Connor favorite “Moonride”, with a hilarious spoken section about an interaction with a space alien. Two selections were composed for Abbey Lincoln by the obscure songwriter R.B. Lynch, and there are several pieces inspired by Blake’s love for film noir (including the piano solo “Mahler Noir” which somehow morphs into a version of “Dancing in the Dark”). The closer is a nearly-definitive version of Harold Arlen’s “Last Night When We Were Young” where Serpa and Blake show that they can effectively create a distinctive interpretation with understated dynamic shifts, a rich harmonic background and minimal changes to the melody.
Another Landmark Collaboration From Sara Serpa and Ran Blake
by Alan Young
For a singer, recording a live album with Ran Blake is a potential minefield. The iconic noir pianist is no mere accompanist: he’s a bandmate. To say that he’s hard to follow is an understatement to the extreme. What is there about Blake that hasn’t been said already? That he is to improvisation what Schoenberg was to composition, maybe? Other pianists would kill to be able to command the kind of otherworldly menace that Blake goes up onstage and pulls out of thin air. And while there’s more often than not a rigorous logic to his melodic sensibility, there’s no telling where he might go with it.
This past May, Sara Serpa took fate in her hands and recorded a live piano-and-vocal album with Blake, titled Aurora and just released on Clean Feed. Adventurous as this may seem at face value, Serpa and Blake have the advantage of being old friends: she’s been a protegee of his since their days together at the New England Conservatory. Which comes as no surprise: they’re peas in a pod, rugged individualists and formidable intellects who share a fondness for third-stream eclecticism and a fear of absolutely nothing. This new album builds on the often shattering camaraderie they shared on their initial duo recording, 2010′s Camera Obscura.
What’s not news is that this is Blake being Blake, chilling, unpredictable yet at the same time giving the songs here plenty of wit, sometimes cruel, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes surprisingly droll. What’s news is how much Serpa, already a distinctive singer, has grown. The disarming quality of her completely unadorned, crystalline, reflecting-pool mezzo-soprano pairs off memorably and not a little hauntingly with Blake’s broodingly opaque, occasionally savage tonalities. Although her approach to a song has every bit as much rigorous precision as Blake’s, she’s back at her old Lisbon stomping ground here (at the sonically superb Auditorio da Culturgest, recorded both in concert and live in the hall the following day) and is clearly feeding off a triumphant homecoming of sorts.
The first song is Saturday, a ballad recorded by Sarah Vaughn early in her career. From its defiantly icy intro, “Saturday…just a doesn’t matter day” becomes a coolly poignant lament. When Autumn Sings, the first of two R.B. Lynch/Abbey Lincoln compositions, finds Blake doing an offhandedly creepy waltz up against Serpa’s surprisingly bluesy melismatics. And yet, by the end, he’s lured her deep into the shadows.
The duo veer between phantasmagorical ragtime and various shades of macabre on a piano-and-vocalese improvisation on Konrad Elfers’ Dr. Mabuse, from the film soundtrack – it’s one of the album’s high points. From there they segue into Cansaco, a 1958 hit for fado icon Amalia Rodriguez. It opens with a moonlit mournfulness, Blake and Serpa exchanging motifs, always understating the song’s lovelorn drama
They follow that with a jauntily carnivalesque take on the bizarre 1950s space-travel relic Moonride, inspired by the Chris Connor version. Serpa sings Strange Fruit a-cappella with a chilling nonchalance, only digging into the melody when the imagery becomes grisly. Blake’s solo spot, titled Mahler Noir, defamiliaizes a couple of late Romantic theme with a tersely crystallized, crepuscular menace that wouldn’t be out of place in peak-era Pink Floyd. Then they romp twistedly through The Band Played On, chosen since the song appears on the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
Love Lament, another Lynch/Lincoln song, gets a broodingly spacious understatement, Serpa matching Blake ellipsis for loaded ellipsis. They keep the snowswept angst going with Wende: the way Serpa sings “pressing so deep into my soul” will rip your face off. By contrast, Fine and Dandy juxtaposes wry Van Morrison allusions with Serpa’s utterly trad, completely deadpan acrobatics. They close the show with a ballad Serpa selected, Last Night When We Were Young, underscoring this ode to defeat with an absinthe hush that’s as quietly powerful as anything these two artists can conjure. Like their previous collaboration, this album makes a mockery of any attempt to rank it against others from this year or for that matter any year. This is music for eternity, a bleak yet sometimes unexpectedly amusing antidote to the shadows encroaching around us.
At the Corner: Ran Blake / Sara Serpa / Christine Correa
Published: May 23, 2013
The common element between Sara Serpa’s Aurora and Christine Correa’s Down Here Below is obviously pianist Ran Blake. Enigmatic to a fault, Blake has made a potent name for himself among improvised music enthusiasts. Blake is an intellectual amalgam of pianists Thelonious Monk and Martial Solal distilled to a dissonant essence.
A long time professor at the New England Conservatory, Blake has taken many under his tutelage, specifically singers, beginning with Jeanne Lee on The Newest Sound Around (BMG, 1962) . Two contemporary singers claiming Blake as a mentor are Sara Serpa and Christine Correa, who each has recorded with Blake previously. These two recordings illustrate art made by like minds sharing the same intellectual space
Sara Serpa and Ran Blake
Clean Feed Records
Camera Obscura (Inner Circle Music, 2010) was the first recorded collaboration between vocalist Sara Serpa and her mentor, pianist Ran Blake. That recording was a moody assault on the fringes of the American Songbook, culminating in an “April In Paris” recorded at the Bates Motel after the word got out about Norman’s mother. Aurora continues where Camera Obscura left off. If anything, Aurora is darker and more nuanced. A bouncy “Moonride” smolders into a stark and terrifying “Strange Fruit,” full of vocal gymnastics and vocalese.
Blake contributes a lengthy original to the mix in “Mahler Noir,” eight minutes that could serve as a soundtrack of any of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther stories. Imagine Wagner, mad with Beethoven, pounding out a suffering late-Romantic recital piece. Disconcerting and off- putting, this strange music has a gravitational pull that disallows any quick dismissal, reeling the listener in to hear “just what is going to happen next.”
“The Band Played On” is where everything fully clicks. The late-19th Century popular tune is delivered as a crippled calliope song with Serpa taking her liberties with the material, making it suited for the remake of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. While this sounds negative, it is anything but. A certain genius on Serpa and Blake’s part governs the interpretation of these songs, something beyond the postmodern…something well beyond.
Ran Blake and Christine Correa
Down Here Below: Tribute to Abbey Lincoln Volume One
Vocalist Christine Correa has had a twenty-year musical relationship with Ran Blake that has resulted in Roundabout (Music and Arts, 1994), Out of the Shadows (Self Produced, 2010) and the present Down Here Below: Tribute to Abbey Lincoln Volume One. Neither artist show the least bit of interest in the status quo, instead opting to push the perimeter of existing repertoire well beyond the bounds of traditional performance.
As with the Serpa disc, Blake remains taciturn introspective, allowing notes to collide almost randomly while Correa provides just enough aural memory that a theme to the performances indeed does exist and that theme is based on another iconoclastic artist, Abbey Lincoln. The title piece is offered in two half—a cappella renderings, delivered full-throated by Correa, dissolving into Blake’s most introspective playing on the disc. The pianist turns inward in search of the necessary pathos to spill upon the keys.
The pair also doubles Oscar Brown, Jr.‘s “Freedom Day,” delivering an almost desperately anxious performance in the first take, while the second take comes off more rhythmically sound with Correa no less extroverted than the first take. “Brother, Can You Spare Me A Dime” is completely transformed from a saloon tune to a post-modern blues hymn. Where Serpa is finesse and irony, Correa is sheer power and fractured momentum.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Saturday; When Autumn Sings; Dr. Mabuse; Cansaço; Moonride; Strange Fruit; Mahler Noir; The Band Played On; Love Lament; Wende; Fine and Dandy; Last Night When We Were Young.
Personnel: Sara Serpa: vocals; Ran Blake: piano.
Down Here Below: Tribute to Abbey Lincoln Volume One
Tracks: Down Here Below; Little Niles; Freedom Day; Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?; Christmas Cheer; Bird Alone; African Lady; Retribution; Freedom Day; How I Hoped for Your Love; Christmas Cheer; Down Here Below.
Personnel: Christine Correa: voice; Ran Blake: piano.