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.