For a decade, the Portuguese-born Sara Serpa has been crafting hauntingly beautiful composed and improvised music, superimposing her classically trained voice onto jazz compositions.
After coming up through Lisbon’s Hot Club and studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Serpa performed and recorded with one of her instructors, the accomplished pianist Ran Blake, in 2008.
Ten years after relocating to New York from Boston and summoning a critically acclaimed catalog of ethereal music, Serpa has returned with Close Up (Clean Feed), something of a compositional challenge in arranging the sparse trio of saxophone, cello and voice.
Just after the album’s release she helped to establish We Have Voice, a collective of more than a dozen performers, composers and scholars from sundry backgrounds who aim to mitigate discrimination of all varieties through increased awareness of harassment and bullying, as well as through establishing a code of conduct.
“There’s been a lot of attention—it’s really incredible, because the code took such a long time to write it down and to discuss it,” Serpa said. “It’s not really about men and women, it’s about creating a better more equitable scene with representation of everybody. It’s been quite unbalanced and not reflective of reality.”
More than two dozen labels, venues, schools and festivals have adopted the code in an effort to create safer and more inclusive spaces for performance and expression. Serpa hopes this sets a new standard.
“Everyone has the potential to change,” the vocalist and composer said. “Above all, it’s about listening; it’s about listening to people who have been put aside for many years. Now, there’s an opening for that. It’s so different now for young students—men and women. I wasn’t exposed to this conversation.”
In a chat with DownBeat, Serpa discusses the evolution of her work, being an immigrant in the American jazz scene, as well as a fascination with literature and film that helped inspire her latest album.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
What have you learned since releasing your debut album, Praia, in 2008?
Each album was very different. Praia just had a lot of time. There was a period of incubation where I had time to play with people that lived in Boston; we performed many times before going to the studio to record. So, the music was already developed when we got to the studio.
And then, moving to New York, [I learned] that people didn’t have too much time. So, the process became a little different. I kept playing with my quintet, but then we adjusted to [playing] with people who were in the New York scene.
It has evolved. For example, the duo with André Matos became something much more elaborate, because we had several sessions. So, the studio was a part of the creative process, and we got a lot of ideas when we were there. Being just the two of us, we went for it, whether it was going for overdubs or playing with different instruments and different voices. So, that became the concept of the duo, experimenting with the studio, and not just going in for one day and leaving. We could keep working and refining things in the studio.
You studied at New England Conservatory, but when was the moment that you knew jazz was going to be the focus of your life?
I never thought I would be a professional musician, although music has always been a part of my life. I went to a conservatory in Portugal, so I [studied] classical piano and classical singing, but it was always a parallel life to real school.
So, what were you in school for originally?
I went to an art school and did two years of painting, then I changed to social work.
It was only the end of college that I decided to try jazz, and went to the Hot Club jazz school in Lisbon. I think it was then, when I was 23. Suddenly, it was like, “Oh, music can be done in a completely different way,” and it was all very intriguing to me.
You have a song on Close Up called, “Woman.” What is your experience as a woman from another country, playing in the American jazz scene?
Coming to the United States opened a lot of doors for me, because I had teachers who really motivated me to continue what I was pursuing, whether it was using my voice as an instrument or going to musical areas where singers don’t usually go.
I was really interested in instrumental music. That period at school was really incredible. Although, there were times when I felt like I was the only woman in the room. But there were other things that were motivating me, or I wasn’t actively thinking that I was being discriminated against.
That only really came when moving to New York and realizing that there were places where I didn’t feel completely comfortable. I didn’t really know how to name it, but it was like, “Yeah, you really are the only woman,” and people had reactions when there was a woman in the room.
[Male] musicians would not talk about music with me or would just not consider that aspect [of me]. But at the same time, I have been able to do my work. I keep going, and I feel those things, and think, “Maybe this person isn’t hiring me because I am an immigrant or because I am a woman.” But then if you get trapped in that, you’re always trying to find excuses as to why you didn’t get an opportunity. I try not to let it control my life, but I think about it.
How did you connect with Ingrid Laubrock and Erik Friedlander for Close Up?
The trio work came at this moment where I was trying to do something new. I wrote all this music for gigs and I invited them to play with me to perform. I wrote the music, thinking about the challenge of writing for saxophone, cello and voice, and seeing what would come out of it. It was also a period where I had time to work consistently on the compositions.
So, the arrangements were already composed for Close Up before the players performed the music?
I had everything written down, but I had never played in this configuration. For me, when I write new music, I have no idea how it’s going to sound. When it’s a harmonic instrument like piano or guitar, the space is not so open, but in this situation, there was so much exposure.
We had no drums and no harmonic instruments, so it was about finding cohesion between the three instruments and figuring out which sections made sense, and what could be cut down. It was more through the process of developing through rehearsals, but I wrote everything.
Iranian film director, Abbas Kiarostami’s film Close-Up influenced your album and the recording’s lyrical inspiration comes from literature. Do you read a lot and watch independent films often?
I do read a lot and I love film, so that always creates food for thought.
I had a chance to go to the Anthology Film Archive to see Close-Up. It was interesting to go to a special room to watch a movie for the first time and not watch it at home—being able to completely disconnect from New York and get into the film, [in] which [the concept] really struck me as an identity shift.
There was this parallel with the trio, because my idea was, “How can I change my role? How can I be in the background,” or, “How can the three of us create this texture where we were all equal? How can I give the main role to another instrument and have it shift back to me?”
There was a lot of thinking around the concept of identity. It’s like a listener who is not passive. The listener is really important in the process of music: the audience or the person at home, listening to the music. Their perception is also really important. DB