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Sara Serpa(Profile/Biography)

United States
Vocalist-composer-bandleader Sara Serpa is “the magical voice” according to pianist Ran Blake, who knows a thing or two about singers. Her unadorned, vibratoless delivery has been described as “smooth as glass” and her ability to sing complex vocalese lines on an equal footing with instrumentalists marks her as one of the most innovative singers of recent years. Praised by All About Jazz as “the freshest vocalist on the scene at the moment,” the 31-year-old Serpa has risen from the Hot Clube Jazz of her native Lisbon to New York’s Village Vanguard in a surprisingly short time.

Serpa first studied classical singing and piano in her teens at the Conservatory of Music in Lisbon. “It enriched my musical vocabulary and my attitude towards life,” she says. “I had to learn great discipline and deep focus.” In Portugal, however, her only option to study music in college was to continue with classical music, “but at some point I felt I didn’t fit in that world,” she says. In college, she earned a degree in social work, although she maintained a strong interest in music outside of classes.

She was mostly attracted to the vibrant jazz scene at Lisbon’s Hot Clube Jazz, the country’s first and most famous jazz venue, and its affiliated school. “When I went there, I was feeling a bit discouraged with my musical experiences—I didn’t know exactly what my role in music was,” she says. “I started going to sessions at the club every week. It definitely changed my life and I discovered a new way to approach music.”

With a renewed focus on jazz and improvised music, she decided to come to the United States to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and later at the nearby New England Conservatory, where she received her Master’s in jazz performance in 2008. Among her teachers in Boston were pianists Danilo Perez and Ran Blake, vocalists Dominique Eade and Theo Bleckmann, trombonist Hal Crook, and saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi.

After graduating from NEC, Serpa moved to New York City, where her unique style quickly brought her to the attention of many of the city’s best musicians. Among them were saxophonist Greg Osby, who first heard her via streaming audio on a chance visit to her MySpace page. Based on what he heard, he invited her to join his band. “Greg supported my vision and working with him created so many opportunities and incredible musical experiences,” Serpa says. “It was amazing to sing at the Village Vanguard in my first year in New York; I will never forget that.” Her contributions to Osby’s 2008 recording, 9 Levels (Inner Circle Music) were widely hailed. “Serpa is especially impressive,” observed Peter Margasak in the Chicago Reader, “her wordless vocals locked to Osby’s sax lines in perfect tune.”

2008 also saw the release of her debut American album, Praia (Inner Circle Music), which features compositions from her time in Boston and her Boston band—pianist Vardan Ovsepian, guitarist Andre Matos, bassist John Lockwood, and drummer Nick Falk. Once more, critics praised her innovative approach to jazz singing. “She sings as an instrumentalist,” said Philip DiPietro in All About Jazz, “as a member of an ensemble with a bold conception, moving seamlessly as would a saxophonist from melodist to soloist, or from a front line horn to an ensemble voice—not the star of some show.”

In 2010, Serpa again mined her Boston experiences for Camera Obscura, a duet album with her former NEC teacher, pianist Ran Blake. Writing of the album in Lucid Culture, Alan Young said, “She approaches these songs with a devastating clarity and vulnerability. Together these two have raised the bar for jazz singing – and accompaniment – to an absurdly high level.” Tackling standards in Blake’s company taught Serpa that “it’s all about the melody,” she says. “I have to know the melody really well and be strong when I am singing it.”

Serpa’s rapid advance to the forefront of new jazz singers has also included an appearance on her NEC professor Danilo Perez’s 2010 Grammy nominated Providencia (Mack Avenue Records). Both Blake and Perez “have really shaped my vision as a musician and are a constant source of inspiration and friendship,” she says. She now also fronts her own New York quintet with guitarist Matos, pianist Kris Davis, bassist Ben Street, and drummer Ted Poor. Their debut recording “Mobile” is due out in 2011.

Since moving to the United States Serpa has performed with great musicians such as Danilo Perez, Ran Blake, Greg Osby, Ben Street, Thomas Morgan, Esperanza Spalding, Tyshawn Sorey, Kris Davis, Adam Cruz, John Hébert, Matt Brewer, Tommy Crane, Ted Poor, Noah Preminger, Joe Martin, André Matos, Leo Genovese, Ferenc Nemeth, Albert Sanz, Masa Kamaguchi, Vardan Ovsepian, among many others. She has also toured in the US, Europe and Australia.

“Serpa may well establish herself in the top tiers of singers in the next few years,” says Bill Shoemaker in Point of Departure. With so many accomplishments in such a short time, she seems well on her way to fulfilling that prediction.
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