Though classically trained, vocalist Sara Serpa’s musical education really began when she discovered Hot Clube Jazz and its offshoot school in her native Lisbon. Moving Stateside, she earned her master’s at New England Conservatory, where her teachers included pianist Ran Blake and vocalist Theo Bleckmann, both of whom surely nourished the keen avant-gardism that has defined her rapid ascent.
Serpa is best known for her soaring, often wordless compositions, as demonstrated across three albums as leader or co-leader, including 2010’s Camera Obscura with Blake, and throughout mentor Greg Osby’s 9 Levels. But like Bleckmann, Blake and Osby, Serpa thrives on constant evolution. Recording live at Lisbon’s Auditorio da Culturgest (with a second session in the empty theater the following day), Serpa reunites with Blake to not so much investigate as invade the standards repertoire.
Serpa’s angular soprano is provided an ideal partner in Blake. With their shared penchant for the outré, they take the likes of “Saturday,” “Last Night When We Were Young” and “Fine and Dandy” in startling directions yet remain uniquely true to each song’s intent. Blake’s passion for cinematic themes is exercised twice, with the dark, undulating “Dr. Mabuse” (from Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler) and a dazzling deconstruction of the popular 19th-century waltz “The Band Played On,” its inclusion inspired by its presence in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Far more chilling is Serpa’s parched, desolate “Strange Fruit,” sung a cappella.