Last weekend was the weekend of voice and piano duos in New York. On Friday and Saturday (December 9th and 10th), Ran Blake and Sara Serpa got together at Kitano Jazz Club in Midtown for two nights and four sets. On Sunday (December 11th), Gretchen Parlato and Shai Maestro held together a master class in the hours just after dusk of the day with the first teasing snow of the season at Mezzrow in the West Village, followed by two sets of music.
Sara Serpa and Ran Blake met when Sara was a student in New England Conservatory (NEC), about a decade ago. Studying with Ran meant getting together with him on a regular basis and singing standards for hours. Sara, who grew up in Portugal, tells that it was through these sessions with Ran that she began exploring what it felt like to sing in English, developing her own way of relating to these songs from another era and in a foreign language. Since the days of the lessons, Sara and Ran have recorded three albums together (Kitano Noir, Sunnyside 2015; Aurora, Cleanfeed 2012, and Camera Obscura, Inner Circle Music 2010). Outside of her work with Ran, Sara has multiple projects, including duo work with guitarist Andre Matos; they recently released their latest album together, All The Dreams (Sunnyside, 2016). Ran is a mammoth pianist figure and legendary NEC teacher and is particularly known for his enormous portfolio of work with singers over the years. Sara Serpa is one. Christine Correa, and fellow NECer Dominique Eade are two more. The legendary album with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around (RCA-Victor) from 1962 was the source of it all. This history loomed large and profound in the dining room at Kitano when Sara and Ran came together once again.
Gretchen and Shai are fresh collaborators. Gretchen, who was, famously, the first singer to enter the Thelonious Monk Institute and who’s been releasing her own albums since 2005, has in the past worked closely with pianists Gerald Clayton and Taylor Eigsti. On his end, Shai, who is a few years newer to the scene, has been playing in duo with singers including Theo Bleckmann and Camila Meza. Gretchen is also featured on Shai’s newest album The Stone Skipper, along with a number of other singers. The two did a show together for the first time at Mezzrow in September, and packed the house for both sets. This time, they prefaced their sets with a master class hosted by the venue. In attendance were fans, professional and student singers, and a handful of pianists. There was a lot of excitement in the cozy listening room, as people confessed to have traveled from Westchester county and Philadelphia to catch the two together.
Through their performances, both duos offered insight into the art of collective improvisation. In their master class, Gretchen and Shai eloquently opened up and riffed on what it means for them to play in duo. One of the themes that immediately became central is that of trust, and the role that listening plays in cultivating and expressing trust for one another. When I asked Shai and Gretchen whether taking a solo in the middle of a duo piece produces a jarring difference, Gretchen responded that when things are open, form can’t be assumed, and so the person not playing needs to be listening intently and open to coming back at any time. Shai responded that it isn’t only about needing to know when to come back in, but that one’s very presence on stage remains important even when not playing. He added that he knows how Gretchen listens, and then even when she’s not singing, her ears and her “energetic presence” are with him and actively impact his playing.
That insight into knowing how somebody else not only plays or sings but also listens is so compelling. And indeed, I have to admit some of the more potent moments for me in both duos were the chance to see the musicians actively listening to one another. Experiencing, through their eyes and bodies, and (to use Shai’s words) “energetic presences,” their trust in one another. For Sara and Ran, seeing Sara perch by the amps while Ran did his wonderfully concise rendition of Abbey Lincoln’s composition “Throw it Away” (and how great to hear Ran give his homage through the piano, to the great singer Abbey Lincoln), and seeing Ran clap enthusiastically after Sara’s acapella performance of the strong “Mãe Preta” and a dexterous piece by Messiaen. And after all, this is something that we can identify with as listeners, too. A performance space as one in which it’s not about musicians musicking and listeners listening, but one in which we all have some shared purpose and presence.
Of course listening doesn’t have to come in the form of silence. In Shai’s and Gretchen’s performance I heard a sort of flooding to the surface of sound and a reveling in one another’s sound. In the master class, Gretchen offered that in duos, the saying “less is more” becomes “less and more,” that there are so many more possibilities that can happen precisely because you’re only interacting with one other person. The abundance of possibility was there throughout the two sets. Shai’s playing is richly textured, and he floods the room with the full range and warmth of his instrument. Gretchen, whose voice is honey nasal and calm, has been described on more than one occasion as sounding like an instrument (and indeed this was part of the fascination of many of the singers who attended the master class), and she functions in a multiplicity of ways in her singing, skipping and weaving in and out of the melodic line, a percussive pulse, a riff. In their performance of Lionel Loueke’s arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”, Shai and Gretchen did this kind of flooding stretching and skipping. Shai played parts of the tune by dampening and plucking the piano strings, making him sound uncannily like Lionel’s intricate guitar playing on the same tune in Gretchen’s first album. Add to the mix Gretchen’s signature percussive clapping, and all together the sound present becomes much more than what you imagined you might be able to hear.
Sara and Ran’s show was full of moments, gems of collective improvisation gathered throughout the evening, small and very precious. A note offered by one person and immediately repeated by the other. A silence exactly at the moment at which it wasn’t expected. An ending exactly a beat before it might be. An articulation of a syllable within a word that is miles away from the articulation of the syllable just before it. A heart-wrenching dissonance that induces a visceral response. A final and triumphant high note and chord of a song at an almost inaudible dynamic. Their performance of Ran’s “The Short Life of Barbara Monk” was a deconstructed study in pointillism, a protein chain forming in real time. One note on the piano generates the next from the voice, which signals the next chord on the piano, and so on.
Zooming out, some of the moments wove together to create threads that suggest a greater web of commentary. Sara sang an acapella version of “Mãe Preta”("Black Mother"), a Fado song (unusual for Sara) whose original lyrics, which talk about an enslaved black woman and juxtapose her care for the children of the white family enslaving her with the emotional and physical violence they subject her to, was censored and outlawed by the dictatorship of Salazar. The melody had become so popular that Fadistas like Amalia Rodrigues were still recording it, but with a new set of lyrics, until the original lyrics were almost entirely forgotten. Sara’s resuscitation of the old lyrics, suppressed by an authoritarian government whose aftereffects she has lived through growing up in Portugal, was a powerful statement.
A few songs later, Sara and Ran played “Mendacity,” originally played by Max Roach’s nonet on Percussion Bittersweet (Impulse! 1961), lyrics by Chips Bayen, including Abbey Lincoln singing.
It makes the world go round
A politician makes a speech
And never hears the sound
The campaign trail winds on and on
In towns from coast to coast
The winner ain’t the one who’s straight
But he who lies the most.
Now voting rights
In this fair land
We know are not denied
But if I tried in certain states
From treetops I’d be tied
It seems is everywhere
But try and tell the truth
And most folks scream – not fair.
The aggregation of these two songs, and their placement in between other pieces in the sets, was like a formal imprint of the persistent monster of systemic racism rearing its head, a reflection of its long intertwined global history, from fifteenth century Portugal through present-day US. The two songs in combination stitched together various points along the global timeline – the Atlantic slave trade started by the Portuguese empire and expanded by European colonizers throughout the Americas and beyond, the censorship and silencing by the nationalist authoritarian Portuguese dictatorship, voter suppression in the US through various mechanisms including violent hate crimes and murders of black people, all the way to voter suppression of people of color in the US today, and the violent white supremacist rhetoric of the United States’ president-elect. The lines “The winner ain’t the one who’s straight/ But he who lies the most” certainly ring true in the days after November 8, 2016, and the lines, “A politician makes a speech/and never hears a sound” seem to remark exactly on the consequences of being inattentive not only to what other people say but also to what we ourselves say, and confront us once again with the challenge of critical and meaningful listening.
Through this web, too, Sara’s and Ran’s reimagining of the standard “Fine and Dandy” received its layers of meaning (they’ve recorded this before). This is not necessarily one of the flashier standards out there, especially with its relatively trivial saccharine lyrics, “Gee it’s all fine and dandy, sugar candy, when I’m with you.” In last week’s performances, Ran’s dark dissonant clusters of harmony played on the bottom end of the piano, along with Sara’s steady unwavering piercing melody, threw the whole thing off balance. Have things ever been “fine and dandy”? Could they ever be? What does that even mean? What do we have to do? Sugar? Candy? Do you mean corn syrup pushed by the subsidized corn industry and killing people? This is the potential strength of standards in a way, being there forever and allowing musicians to mess them up as they see fit, and throw into question all acceptable knowledge.
And also not. Shai and Gretchen, too, played a not so frequently visited standard. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” which used be “her face” when sung about Eliza Doolittle in the musical My Fair Lady. In their performance of the song, they climbed into it and nestled. Rested into the song, getting into it in a personal level, Gretchen singing the words as though speaking them to a friend, and Shai playing pedal underneath the harmony for the better part of a chorus, until he felt ready to open it up. They weren’t necessarily performing the song, they were entering into it and inhabiting it in the way that felt most quotidian. In the master class, Gretchen mentioned that it took her a long time before she started composing her own songs, because she felt a little paralyzed by the perfection of what was already out there. Many people are glad Gretchen started writing, but this song certainly seemed to remind of the fact that in the world there are elements of beauty, and it is within our fortune and capability to momentarily revisit them.
Correction: December 30, 2016
An earlier version of this piece misstated that Sara's and Ran's performances at Kitano were recorded to be released as the duo's fourth album. Two of the performances were recorded, but not for commercial release.