GIG: WPAC theatre, 8:30pm, October 30
Sara Serpa vocals/compositions, Andre Matos guitar, Aaron Choulai piano, Sugawa Takashi bass, Tanaka Noritaka drums
I am not big on vocalists, though I am always open to being persuaded otherwise. My usual, possibly crass, explanation is that vocals can get in the way of the instruments. Sara Serpa was ideal for my education, because she does not regard herself as a singer with a backing band, but as another instrumentalist. The reservation I had after hearing Serpa in this outing was that her vocal range did not seem to especially extensive and that in using her voice as an instrument she seemed to too closely follow the guitar playing of her husband, Andre Matos. No doubt Serpa was improvising, but her compositions seemed to call for a fair bit of congruity between her voice and that of Matos’s strings, so that I wished after a while that she would be more adventurous.
In terms of my education on vocalists, this festival had great potential. I was later to hear two Kurt Elling concerts (the vocalist as showman) and on Cup eve I heard Kristin Berardi in a sensitive duo with James Sherlock. I was unable to hear Sarah McKenzie on Sunday with her sextet at the Pinsent Hotel. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that Elling’s vocal antics were spectacular, though I did wish for less of the zany humour and more songs to celebrate the agility and range, and just the pure sound, of his voice. And Berardi’s delightful outing had much more of the voice as superb instrument that I had hoped Serpa would deliver.
Serpa, from Portugal but now living in New York, opened with Ten Long Days of Rain, written in Boston. Then followed Sequoia Gigantes, inspired by a description of the giant redwood trees in John Steinbeck’s novel Travels with Charley. Serpa introduced the song eloquently as an attempt to capture “the essence of being around these trees — peaceful and yet intimidating”, then quoted a few lines from the book. This was one of Serpa’s pieces that I felt really captured the feeling well.
Her next composition, Praia, she said loosely translated as “beach”. Serpa seemed to sing partly in Portuguese and part vocalese. This was followed by a fado — a traditional Portuguese form Serpa said dealt with the challenges of longing for and loving someone who does not love you — entitled S’em Razao (Without A Reason). Her voice certainly conveyed anguish.
Matos alone accompanied the vocalist for Acerta Passo, by Pixinguinha, which was roughly translated as “catch up”. In this Serpa’s voice seemed tiny and fragile as she attained notes in a higher register. Then she sang Julia, from the Beatles White Album. This was sung in English, her voice blaring out at higher volumes in parts. I did not think this treatment of the song worked all that well.
The set finished with Gold-Digging Ants, which was part vocalese, part doo-wop.
All I could think of at the end was the incongruity of Aaron Choulai in his American football top (or baseball?) at the piano and the comparatively formal attire of the singer. But that also applied to Choulai’s other concerts with the Japanese musicians. Of course it is immaterial.
Matos was suitably empathetic throughout and Choulai, Takashi and Noritaka were attentive and careful not to take any of the limelight.
I suppose I was a little disappointed in Serpa’s concert, given the excited reviews I’d read. She seems to prefer to avoid vocal gymnastics. Perhaps she could be a little more adventurous in her improvisation using her chosen instrument.