The vocalist Sara Serpa has a way with words. First of all, when she references a classic, it’s as likely to be John Steinbeck as it is Cole Porter. Secondly, the impact of her voice isn’t dependent on the words themselves; more than a mere showcase for her rhythmic acuity, her vocalese can envelop a song with piercing meaning without singing a lyric. When she does integrate verses and choruses, the impact is captivating. Such is the case on Intimate Strangers, her new recording, where her vocals intertwine with text recited by Nigerian author Emmanuel Iduma from his book A Stranger’s Pose, which collects his reflections on travels to a dozen African cities. Pianist Matt Mitchell, modular synth player Qasim Naqvi, and vocalists Aubrey Johnson and Sofia Rei round out the ensemble.
The project, which was commissioned by John Zorn for presentation at National Sawdust in Brooklyn in November 2018, continues Serpa’s fervent interest in parsing the Portuguese footprint in Africa, but the explorations go further than a re-litigation of colonialism. Instead, issues such as sense of self and place, and interpretations of land and space, are among the subjects. This complex material is presented elegantly, with sumptuous vocal harmonies highlighting “For You I Must Become a Tree” and the knotty synthesizer lines that accentuate “Note to Nephew” and “Kidira.” Mitchell’s ascetic grace leads “Bamako.” Iduma’s potent text and Mitchell’s pithy keyboards merge with urgent vocals—first from Serpa, then with Johnson and Rei backing—on “In Due Course.”
One obvious foundation of Serpa’s style are the gorgeous recordings of Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake (and Serpa has performed duets with Blake), but this album shows her going much further. Her ability to integrate so many elements so seamlessly suggests that more ambitious works and statements loom.