Sara Serpa is a vocalist wielding an instrument as favorably unadorned and pure as any in jazz. She's the freshest vocalist on the scene at the moment, not just because she's new to it at age 28. It's certainly not because of the way she delivers a lyric, since there usually aren't any. Being from Portugal is also irrelevant, for like much of the great jazz coming our way in the past few years from Lisbon, there is nothing overtly ethnic about the music; it's sensuous, transporting, sultry and warm.
A main reason is that with one recording in, she raises profound questions regarding the previous role of the vocalist in jazz. What's radical, is that it's not about the ridiculous chops or inhuman gymnastic training or trickery. She sings as an instrumentalist, as a member of an ensemble with a bold conception, moving seamlessly as would a saxophonist from melodist to soloist, or from a front line horn to an ensemble voicenot the star of some show. Serpa sounds as if she's talking right to you, even though she's singing, not just in terms of the intimacy quotient, but in terms of the actual sound of itliterally, she sounds as if she must sing whenever she speaks.
Perhaps the clue in her bio is that she was classically trained and a motivated singer and pianist before coming to jazz. Conceivably this is why she can hone in on a pitch, tone or timbre instantaneously and execute unison passages effortlessly as she does with guitarist Andre Matos on the leadoff, "The Wedding Present." Her background also explains her link with pianist Vardan Ovsepian, who was classically trained in Armenia before embracing jazz in Helsinki and Boston, where they met. Ovsepian's own work carries on the tradition of fusing European art music with improvisational jazz. It's fitting that, on the first cut, he's granted his own ante-room to change the composition. In a verdant soliloquy, which is more a whole alternate sonata than jazz piano solo, he begins and ends the spot with a loop-like figure over which Serpa somehow restates the head.
"10 Days of Rain" follows, with Serpa transforming all the precision of the previous song into emotion and soul. The unison passages may in fact be more rigorous, but they're casually tossed in a dance with Matos, and then, eight minutes into the session, they gloriously just let go. We're enmeshed in distorted guitar and a moaning and screaming that never goes off-pitch or off-center, while palpably the product of improvised abandon. It's these moments that must co-exist with the rest of what Serpa is to make it jazz, after all. There must be the intent to let go and the maintenance of virtuosity that goes along with it.
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.
Personnel: Sara Serpa: voice; Andre Matos: guitar; Vardan Ovsepian: piano; John Lockwood: bass; Nick
Falk: drums; Greg Osby: alto sax.