PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Sara Serpa and Ran Blake: Kitano Noir

Photo: Vera Marmelo

Fragile, tranquil and dreamlike, together Sara Serpa and Ran Blake explore the delicate side of jazz's avant-garde.

Sara Serpa & Ran Blake

Kitano Noir

Label: Sunnyside
US Release Date: 2015-05-26
UK Release Date: 2015-06-01
Label website
Artist website

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.