Singer/composer Sara Serpa, whose shimmering straight-tone vocals and wordless melody lines distinguish her as a leading musician in experimental jazz, raises the bar ever higher with Close Up (Trem Azul). As she writes in the liner notes, Serpa is always seeking to “find the place for [my] human voice.” The album provides just such a place through the musical exploration of different sensate states: the loneliness of motherhood, the wonder of a nighttime mountain sky, the inspiration of poetry.

Joining the singer in this exploration are cellist Erik Friedlander and saxophonist Ingrid Aubrock, whose cogent playing rises and recedes like ocean waves throughout Serpa’s compositions. At times Friedlander will hold the bass line; at other times it’s Serpa or Aubrock. Regardless of who is in the forefront or the background, however, all three balance sensitivity and spontaneity as the sonic field shifts during these dynamic compositions. In her writing, Serpa reveals a practiced intelligence in her use of dissonance (“The Future”), tricky harmonies (“Quiet Riot”), and the unison line (“Sol Enganador”). But throughout the recording it’s Serpa’s voice that moves the musical narrative along. (Her voice is so pure and crystalline that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish her line from the soprano sax line.)

For tunes with text, Serpa draws from some exceptional literary sources. She used the writing of French feminist philoshopher Luce Irigary to craft the touching song “Woman,” and the lyrics to Pássaros(Birds) derive from a poem of the same name by Portuguese poet Ruy Bello. The choice of these texts speaks not only to Serpa’s cross-cultural awareness but to the deeply personal meaning that her music holds.  

On the heels of her performance at The Stone in John Zorn’s a cappella group Mycale in April, Serpa will perform in composer Sophia Brous’ contemporary opera cycle Gorgon at National Sawdust on May 3. Then she’ll sing with a classical vocal quartet at the Anthroposophical Society on May 18, followed by a concert at Brooklyn Conservatory of Music with Friedlander and pianist Angelica Sanchez on May 20.

Last fall pianist/singer Lauren Lee toured Europe for five weeks, with part of that time spent as an artist-in-residence at the UNCOOL Festival in Poschiavo, Switzerland. On May 15 at Cornelia Street Café she’ll be leading her quartet in a set of material that she wrote during that residency; then in August she’ll take these pieces into the studio to create her second CD as a leader. (Her first, The Consciousness Test (s/p), debuted in 2016.) As a singer Lee tests boundaries—she doesn’t hesitate to use overtone singing, fearless improvisations, counterpoint, and, like Serpa, challenging harmonies. This said, she has a winning way with a standard, too. On the day before the Cornelia Street gig, May 14, Lee will join fellow improv adventurer, singer Andrea Wolper, at Bushwick Public House in Brooklyn.

Pianist/composer Monika Herzig’s new album, Sheroes (Whaling City Sound) isn’t a vocal release. It’s an all-female instrumentalist musical manifesto. But on the one track with vocals—“I Am A Superstar”—composer/trombonist Reut Regev uses spoken word against a klezmer groove to  state the case plainly enough. “I am a good person. I am beautiful. I am kind. I am funny. I am a superstar,” she declares—with help from the band. (The band: Herzig, guitarist Leni Stern, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Jennifer Vincent, saxophonist Ada Rovatti, percussionist Mayra Casales, drummer Rosa Avila, and flutist Jamie Baum.)

Vocal jazz concert offerings in May run the gamut. For compelling Latin beats, go see Chilean singer Claudia Acuña, who pairs up with Cuban powerhouse pianist Elio Villafranca at JALC on May 4-6. Acuña also plays Mezzrow on May 17. For expertly turned out standards, check out KT Sullivan, either when she hosts “All The Way: The Music of Jimmy Heusen & Friends” at Carnegie Hall on May 18, or three days later on May 21 at Birdland. Alternatively (or in addition to), Michael Feinstein will be at JALC twice this month, once with singers Nnenna Freelon and Christine Ebersole on May 2-3 in “The Enchanting Lena Horne” and then with Anne Hampton Calloway, Kenny Washington, and the Ted Firth Big Band in “Swinging With The Count” on May 30-31. For an otherworldly encounter, see Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq at the World Music Institute on May 11.

(Reprinted from the May 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)

Photo: João Ornelas