Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Portuguese vocalist-composer Sara Serpa and her ensemble perform her magical and cathartic new album “Intimate Strangers” at The Stone NYC, and I’d like to share my thoughts about this extraordinary concert and work. Sara Serpa is well-known and respected in the jazz world and a co-founder of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians), of which CRS is a leading sponsor, and while I’d spoken with her via Zoom and listened to her albums, this was my first time to hear her divine voice and experience her brilliance in person. She is a master of craft who deploys her mastery with imagination, honesty, and fearlessness to give voice to the unheard and remind us who we really are and can be.
Named one of the top jazz albums of 2021 by The New York Times, “Intimate Strangers” is a collaboration between Serpa and the Nigerian writer Emmanuel Iduma, drawing inspiration from Iduma’s latest book, A Stranger’s Pose. The album blends music, text, and field recordings collected by Iduma during his travels from Lagos to Sarajevo and explores themes of movement, home, grief, absence and desire in what Iduma calls “an atlas of a borderless world.” “The journey takes unexpected turns, resulting in reflections on the sea, the desert as well as natural and artificial borders he is faced with. There is beauty in these encounters, even when they describe love and loss, grief and longing, displacement and war, privilege or apathy.”
In last night’s concert, actress Nehassaiu deGannes voiced Iduma’s part (he voices himself on the album), and as on the album Serpa was joined by Sofía Rei and Aubrey Johnson to sing parts that are described as “narrators, storytellers and spirits that travel along, opening several emotional doors through the piece” while Qasim Naqvi produced all kinds of sounds on modular synth and Matt Mitchell played piano.
But describing the performance in this way might give the misleading impression that this is a kind of reading with chorus and live soundtrack. It is not really that at all. Experiencing the work live in the room with them is much more like dreaming.
Do you know the feeling of being alone under a tree but you’re not alone at all because well obviously there’s the tree and there’s also the air made visible and present though the swaying of the branches and the trembling of the leaves? And then there are birds and insects, etc. You are very much part of an ensemble, an orchestra of sorts, all interrelating.
Just as nature’s shifting scents and sounds induce sudden flashbacks and lazy daydreams and transcendental experiences of Oneness, Serpa’s “Intimate Strangers” infuses one’s consciousness, swirling stories of the lives of others with swells of one’s own memories and thoughts and feelings that arise and fall as they call and respond, as you recall and respond, and those stories of others become your own, intimate and strange and strangers no more.
This dreamlike experience is crafted, sonically and textually, with the utmost precision, the shifting text and daring harmonic textures and dissonances implying and evoking multiple points of view and feelings simultaneously. The empathy this carries reflects in form the themes of the text. And this is also essential to the healing power of the work: it is a unified whole that engenders an experience of unity.
Sara Serpa will be at The Stone NYC again tonight at 8:30pm, the last night of her week-long residency, performing a different program with Ingrid Laubrock (saxophones), Angelica Sanchez (piano), and Erik Friedlander (cello) that includes the premiere of CMA Jazz Works “Encounters and Collisions” based on Igiaba Scego’s book My Home is Where I Am.
The Stone is located in The New School Glass Box Theatre at 55 W 13th St, just east of 6th Ave in Manhattan.