A graduate of the New England Conservatory, Serpa has studied with pianists Ran Blake (with whom she recorded a duet CD, "Camera Obscura," in 2010) and Danilo Perez (she appears on his CD "Providencia"), and vocalists Dominique Eade and Theo Bleckmann. After moving to New York, her work caught the ear of saxophonist Greg Osby who subsequently featured her wordless vocals on his CD "9 Levels." Since then, she's worked with the cream of the crop of New York's most accomplished musicians, many of whom appear on "Mobile."
"Mobile" is not just about Serpa's voice. She functions as part of a musical ensemble. Unlike most vocalists, Serpa is not always 'out front.' Sometimes she accompanies the others, and sometimes they accompany her. She is completely integrated into her exceptionally fine band. The composing here is also world-class, and Serpa's music is consistently far more substantial than the typical jazz vocalist fare. Her tendency towards musical risk-taking pays huge artistic dividends throughout "Mobile." This is apparent on the CD's first track, 'Sequoia Gigantis.' After a brief spoken word intro, the band launches into the tune's lengthy, multi-sectioned theme. After sharing the melody with Serpa's vocal, guitarist Andre Matos (the only musician here that I hadn't already heard elsewhere) spins an elegant web of a solo. Serpa's unusual penchant for convoluted structures, non-straightforward melodies, quirky harmonies and oddly syncopated rhythms, as exemplified by tunes such as 'Ulysses' Costume,' 'Ahab's Lament, and 'Traveling With Kapuszinsky,' is all over "Mobile." Serpa's no one-trick pony, however, and the artistic breadth on display here is quite impressive. The instrumentation changes slightly on two of the CD's most haunting pieces, 'Pilgramage to Amaranth' and 'Corto.' Both tracks feature Matos on acoustic guitar and Kris Davis on Fender piano – and both are dark, atmospheric ballad-like pieces that have a languid, yet unsettled, quality. 'Gold Digging Ants,' on the other hand, is a tough funky piece based on a series of insistent, forward-moving ostinati that betray a slight M-BASE influence. The most distinctive track, however, is the CD-closing 'City of Light / City of Darkness.' Here, oddly harmonized, multi-tracked vocals, muttering piano, and near-aleatory percussion and guitar combine to create an other-worldly musical environment.