Knowing Sara Serpa

Music has been a part of vocalist Sara Serpa’s life since she started playing piano at age seven and singing in a youth choir that toured Portugal and France. As a teenager, she studied classical voice and piano at the Conservatory of Music in her native Lisbon, Portugal. Later on, while earning her college degree in Social Work, she found herself drawn to the jazz scene at Lisbon’s Hot Clube Jazz. The more involved in the city’s vibrant jazz culture she became, the more she wanted to be involved with contemporary improvisation and jazz. She decided to move to the US to attend Berklee College of Music and then the Jazz Program at Boston’s New England Conservatory.

In 2008, the year she graduated from NEC with a Master’s in Jazz Performance, Serpa moved to New York. By chance, saxophonist Greg Osby heard her singing on streaming audio posted on her MySpace page and he asked her to join his band. Serpa recorded with him on 9 Levels that same year and appeared for the first time in New York with his band at the Village Vanguard. 2008 also saw the release of her debut album as a leader, Praia, featuring a quintet of musicians from her time in Boston. Today, her New York quintet continues to be a major creative focus. They made their recording debut on the 2011 CD, Mobile. The group provides her a platform for performing and experiment with her unique compositions.

At New England Conservatory, Serpa had formed a close student-teacher bond with pianist Ran Blake. Blake is an unorthodox but always empathetic vocal accompanist and Serpa relished the challenge of working with him. Through him, she has learned to connect in a deeper way with the emotions and meaning of English language lyrics, a skill she was uncertain of as a native Portuguese speaker. They have recorded two widely acclaimed albums of daring duets, Camera Obscura and Aurora, the latter recorded in concert in her native Lisbon.

Serpa maintains other on-going projects as well. Guitarist André Matos, whom Serpa met in 2003 while she was studying in Boston,  is a duet partner of long standing. In 2012, she founded the vocal ensemble Fragmentz, which includes six singers and a rhythm section. With versions of the band in both Lisbon and New York, the new project provides Serpa with exciting options to explore ways for singers to work together and to interact with instrumentalists.

In addition to her groundbreaking work as a bandleader, improviser, and interpreter of the Great American Songbook, Serpa collaborates with other musicians in their bands and recordings. In 2011, she made an appearance on pianist (and former teacher) Danilo Perez’s Grammy-nominated Providencia. She joined Mycale, an a cappella vocal quartet dedicated to performing the music of John Zorn, in 2013.  She has also collaborated and recorded with composers Aya Nishina, Asuka Kakitani, and Joseph Phillips.

During the years since Serpa moved to the US, she has developed a special passion for teaching. In addition to private lessons at her Manhattan studio, she has taught in several schools in New York area, and conducted workshops and master classes in Portugal, Panama, Uruguay, Spain, Brazil, and Australia.

She has toured Europe, Australia, and North and South America, singing at international festivals such as Festa do Jazz (Portugal), the Panama Jazz Festival, Festival de Jazz de Montevideo (Uruguay), Wangaratta Jazz Festival (Australia), and Sesc Pinheiros (Brazil). In the United States, she has performed at the Village Vanguard, Jazz Standard, and Jazz Gallery, Cornelia Street Cafe (all in New York); the Brooklyn Academy of Music; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Kennedy Center for the Arts (Washington, D.C.), among others.

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