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Sara Serpa & Ran Blake: Kitano Noir

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Apart from his landmark work with Jeanne Lee in the 1950s and early ’60s (and their brief but sublime reunion in the late ’80s), pianist Ran Blake has devoted little attention to vocalists. Until, that is, the current decade, as the Third Stream pioneer entered his mid-70s. Singers have since become a prime focus. While he’s shaped superb one-off sessions with Dominique Eade and France’s Laïka Fatien, his principal vocal partners are the equally skilled yet dramatically different Christine Correa and Sara Serpa.

The Bombay-born Correa’s rich, dark-hued voice is a rather ideal match for Blake’s noirish style. The Road Keeps Winding, their fourth collaboration, continues their joint interpretation of the Abbey Lincoln songbook, begun with 2012’s Down Here Below. This 12-track pairing, just voice and piano, is indeed a twisted one, progressing through an inky “Straight Ahead,” urgent, staccato “The Heel,” eerily ethereal “Midnight Sun” and a fascinating take on “When Autumn Sings,” with Blake’s almost childlike plinking in stark contrast to the scorched ache of Correa’s vocal. Lincoln’s groundbreaking partnership with Max Roach is saluted with a “Driva Man” both beefy and sharply angular and a gloriously expansive “Living Room.” Blake, lost in reverie, goes it alone for a two-part amble through “Throw It Away.” They close with “Evalina Coffey (The Legend Of),” cleverly lending Lincoln’s curious yarn an otherworldly air that recalls the similarly supernatural “Nature Boy.”

Serpa’s free-floating atonality is also a fine fit with Blake, who adapts to their union with looser, spikier playing. For their third shared outing, recorded live at midtown Manhattan’s Kitano, they alternate between standards and Blake originals: the tranquil opener, “Field Cry,” the halting, undulating “Indian Winter, ” the hide-and-seek, birdcall-esque “Cry Wolf” and, suggestive of a ghostly nursery rhyme, the mesmeric “Short Life of Barbara Monk,” all wordless. While Serpa’s parched delivery is best suited to the somberness of such classics as “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “Mood Indigo” and “‘Round Midnight,” she proves fully as affecting on an urgently passionate “Get Out of Town,” a slightly unhinged “Fine and Dandy” and the lilting, Peggy Lee-associated “Sing a Rainbow.” Most profound and powerful, though, are two solo tracks: Blake’s multi-shaded “Good Morning Heartache” and Serpa’s prayer-like a cappella reading of the magnificent Brazilian fado “Mãe Preta.”

Originally Published