I’ve heard good report of the Portuguese vocalist Sara Serpa for a while now, and I finally heard her live on Friday night. Her genre is jazz, but do not expect to hear the standards from her, at least not in their usual form. Serpa is an experimentalist, and an intellectual, and her repertory includes musical renditions of texts as varied as MOBY DICK and Herodotus. She started the first set at the Cornelia Street Café with a version of feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray’s musings on the human breath.

This is appropriate for Serpa, whose art proceeds from an interest in sound and where it originates in the body, and later in the ways in which it links up with thought, sense, and (eventually) emotion. She is sensitive to how song emanates from the physical instrument and is encountered in the surrounding space. Her use of the microphone and how she positions it is striking, now close, then far, as though her vocalizations are elastic, able to be stretched and contracted in consonance with their meaning. At one point she moved the microphone in little curlicues around the perimeter of her lips, as though making herself up with sound.

Conventional singing is about the drama of the song, and the story implied by the lyrics, but there was scarcely any of that in the first set, as a result of which it had a certain lack of shape. But on her return to the stage, she grew more lyrical, as though she had established the basis of her sound and was building a (still tentative) structure of story and sensibility upon it. She sang a fado (so thoroughly jazzified that it was barely recognizable as such) and a zamba from Argentina (which did sound like one) and overall found a way to round off the evening as an emotional whole.

Not everyone could pull this sort of thing off, and I suppose that she is not destined for a general audience, but it helps that she is unassuming, and something of a charmer, on top of being supple and skillful in voice and mind alike.

For information on future events at Cornelia Street Café, click here. More on Sara Serpa here.