There’s a fragile beauty in pianist Ran Blake’s approach to avant-jazz. Placing the focus more on mood and texture, Blake forgoes the genre’s noisier trappings in favor of subtle, understated nuance of phrasing. It’s a brilliantly idiosyncratic approach that works well in a solo context, but potentially problematic when relegated to a supposedly supporting role.
Fortunately for Blake, he has a long history of pairing with equally adept vocalists, going all the way back to his landmark early ‘60s recording with the late Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. There he established a new approach for piano accompaniment that worked in tandem with the vocalist rather than solely as a foundational base. It allowed both performers to stretch out and showcase their individual talents without sacrificing their unique approach. In this sense, it functioned more as a true duet than a vocal showcase, with Blake and Lee playing off one another’s phrases.
Since then, Blake has largely avoided recorded vocal pairings, his style too unorthodox for all but the most sympathetic of vocalists. But in the last several years, he seems to have found a kindred spirit in Portuguese vocalist Sara Serpa. Having formed a somewhat unlikely teacher-student bond while studying at the New England Conservatory in Boston, the duo began explore piano and vocal pairings reminiscent of Blake’s work with Lee.
But where Lee possessed a more assured, commanding vocal presence capable of darker hues and brilliant phrasing, Serpa’s voice is a much more delicate instrument. And in the recordings on their latest collaboration, Kitano Noir, Blake’s style alters ever so slightly to accommodate this difference, adopting an almost feather-light approach to the keys. So ephemeral are many of these performances they threatened to dissipate with the gentlest of breezes.
On the opening, wordless Blake original “Field Cry”, he employs a discordant bluesy descending phrase that dances around Serpa’s octave jumps and emotive cooing. Quiet and impossibly delicate, it sets the tone for the remainder of the performance. Only the occasional cough and clinking of silverware betray the live nature of these recordings. So intimate is the interplay between Blake and Serpa that the thought of an audience being present seems almost intrusive, voyeuristic even.
Where Blake’s sessions with Lee offered starker dynamic contrasts, his approach with Serpa is one of gentle minimalism, rarely punctuating his phrases with anything beyond a moderate volume. On “Curtis”, one of several instrumentals here, Blake utilizes dissonance and soulful, syncopated phrasing to evoke the memory of the late Curtis Mayfield. It’s a lovely solo moment that allows the majesty of Blake’s play to come to the forefront, his atypical melodicism on full display.
Traces of Serpa’s native Portuguese creep into her precise pronunciations on the standard “When Sunny Gets Blue”, most evident in the song’s more tightly woven lyrical passages. Effortlessly swooping in and out, her phrasing is weightless to the extreme, feels as though it could float away at any moment with Blake’s piano as the only thing keeping her grounded. The only song here from The Newest Sound Around, it can’t help but be compared to Lee’s performance. Where Lee took more liberties with both the phrasing and time, Serpa plays it largely straight, almost whispering the lyrics in a voice like that of an only slightly less childlike Blossom Dearie.
Clearly more comfortable in her native tongue, she offers a brilliant solo vocal take in “Mae Preta”. At nearly five minutes, it’s a risky move coming as it does within the performance. But Serpa, a marvelously subtle vocalist, manages to maintain the moment throughout, seamlessly integrating the performance within the whole of the program.
Tackling a handful of standards (“Mood Indigo” and “‘Round Midnight” among them), the duo approach each with few melodic deviations. Instead, the focus is more on creating a mood, tapping into the underlying emotion of each piece without attempting to create a definitive performance of these oft-covered standards. On “‘Round Midnight”, Serpa struggles on several words, but manages to draw attention largely away from these missteps in the rising and falling of her voice as it dances with the melody, exploring its intricacies without being overly showy.
It’s in this subtle exploration of the intersection of emotionality and musicality that Serpa and Blake find their greatest successes. By working with one another, on equal footing, one never overshadows the other, each in the service of the song rather than themselves. Quiet and introspective, only when the audience finally applauds at the conclusion of “I Can Sing A Rainbow” is the spell temporarily broken as the rest of the world once again makes its presence known. Kitano Noir is wonderfully hypnotic, the ideal late night listen.
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