Ran Blake and Sara Serpa – Camera Obscura – Inner Circle Music INCM 015CD, 29:43 ***½:
(Ran Blake – piano, Sara Serpa – voice)
Camera Obscura, Ran Blake and Sara Serpa’s first recording together, takes its name from the earliest ancestor of photography and cinema. The technique involves allowing the thinnest sliver of light through a single hole into an otherwise pitch-black room. From this one point of entry emerges the outside world flattened onto to the opposite wall and turned on its head.
As the central metaphor for their collaboration, it’s a good one. Camera Obscura immerses the listener in a particular ambience and mood, which, rather than shift or break, deepens with each track. Blake cites noir film scores as a major source of inspiration for his work and here he channels their beauty and claustrophobic intimacy.
Like the paradox of the camera obscura, or the best film noir, the album’s singular focus and restraint results not in a sense of incompleteness, but rather a surprising fullness. Blake and Serpa transform the songs, a mixture of standards and their own compositions, into meditations on the brightness within our darker moods, the expressiveness of silence.
The album’s standout song is a reprise of the title track of Blake’s 1986 recording, The Short Life of Barbara Monk. Blake’s mastery of solo pianist as storyteller shines through on the brief introduction to the piece—with just a few sparse chords he captures the complexity of loss, its mixture of general grief, particular rememberings, the confusing truth a loved one is at once gone and not gone. When Serpa enters, she sings the melody almost as lullaby, evocative of the relationship between mother and son. Blake’s accompaniment spends the beginning song ambivalent—at moments harmonizing with Serpa, in others retreating into insular musings—progressing, almost imperceptibly, to a final restatement of the melody that swings joyously, as if to say, celebrate the life well lived.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album falls far short of this, admittedly dizzyingly high point with no other songs playing so well to the respective strengths of both players. Serpa is the rare singer who moves beyond the cliché of your voice being your instrument, to singing as part of the band, rather than merely in front of it. She only rarely sings with lyrics, instead showcasing her gifts of communication outside the traditional confines of words and the duty to interpret them. She feels wasted on the repertoire chosen here, which mostly cast her in the role of torch singer. The impact dissipates over the course of the album as the dramatic arc is similarly replicated on “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “Driftwood,” “Vanguard,” and “Get Out of Town.” On “Our Fair Cat “its taken almost to the level of farce, turning a pet into a noirish relationship of love in the face of knowing your object of affection is a murderer, but makes not the slightest acknowledgement of the implicit humor of this characterization.
Given Blake’s status as one of the principal Third Stream-ers and an elder statesman of jazz, it’s not a surprise that the other songs involve Serpa skillfully adapting to his way of doing things. While Blake retains a sensitivity to others reflective of his long and celebrated career as an educator, Camera Obscura rarely includes him deviating from his more or less fully developed musical approach. This is a shame because a more thorough integration of both talents would have undoubtedly taught him more. As it is, we are left with a smaller album, but a captivating one with moments of intriguing potential and the odd glimmer of inspired brilliance.
TrackList: When Sunny Gets Blue, Our Fair Cat, Folhas, The Short Life of Barbara Monk, I Should Care, Nutty, Driftwood, Get Out Of Town, Vanguard, April in Paris
— Robin Margolis