Originally published in teh NYC Jazz Record, November 2015
SARA SERPA AND RAN BLAKE, “KITANO NOIR” (Sunnyside SSC 1362)
CD Review by John Pietaro
A late night, smoke-filled room, bathed in deep textural black and white. This is the imagery that vocalist Sara Serpa and pianist Ran Blake must have sought to imbue the listener with as they recorded this brilliant album, live at Kitano to a largely silent audience. It’s night music, but one that embraces musical modernisms as readily as the rich greys within shadows.
Blake, who has long been known to fuse atonality and whole-tone runs, among other contemporary concert music devices, into lush jazz chords, is in his element here. A noted accompanist to quite a few vocalists, this particular pairing finds him taking chances that most singers might respond to with an immediate grit of the teeth. But Sara Serpa, a former Blake student, appears to revel in every turn and comfortably slides in and out of tonality with great skill. The effect is often akin to late French Impressionist works; “Pelias e’ Melesande”, perhaps, if heard from Duke Ellington’s purview. The selections even include a personalized, creeping version of “Mood Indigo” that Duke would have to be moved by.
This album is filled with gems like this and with titles such as “When Sunny Gets Blue”, “Round Midnight”, “Get Out of Town” and “Good Morning Heartache”, along with Blake originals and others, the familiar strains guide the ear through this fascinating experimental structure.
“Kitano Noir” is the soundtrack to both sleepless nights and lost bourbon-and-cigarette breakfasts. Blake’s technical abilities are matched only by his emotional output and mastery of the material; Serpa’s utterly haunting voice boldly reclaims this music as if composing it anew.
So stark, the listener can almost fill the space with the whisper of dark nights, long ago.