Sara Serpa: A Musical Journey
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] Andre 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 elementwe 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 continentsI 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 togetherso 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 improviseto 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.