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  • Glenn Siegel

Front and Center: Sara Serpa/André Matos Duo at the Institute For the Musical Arts

On Friday I met with jazz scholar, radio host and record producer Ben Young, who gifted me albums recorded in the 1960s and 70s by Archie Shepp, Ted Daniels, Sirone and others. They were “free” jazz records made entirely by men. The next night, March 30, Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares presented vocalist Sara Serpa at the Institute For the Musical Arts in Goshen, MA. The juxtaposition of these two events in my life underscored the sea change that has taken place in both the music and those who make it.


In the past 50 years, and especially in the last 20 or so, the number of women who have taken jazz’s center stage has exploded. Of course, even back in the day women like Mary Lou Williams, Alice Coltrane and Carla Bley had major impacts on jazz. But now, the number of female jazz artists working in the field has grown so great as to seem unremarkable (although more work remains). In the past five weeks alone, for instance, Jazz Shares has presented bands led by Tomeka Reid, Kris Davis, Ingrid Laubrock, Anna Webber and Sara Serpa. These artists were not hired to fulfil some random women’s history month quota, but because they have thriving careers making music on a high level. And they are far from alone.


Serpa, who performed with her husband, guitarist André Matos, and keyboardist Dov Manski, gave us a set of ethereal originals that filled the barn at IMA with love and creative energy. The material, all written by either Serpa and Matos, were drawn from a series of fine recordings they have produced, the majority from their most recent, Night Birds (2023). Utilizing the wordless vocal style that is her trademark, Serpa’s voice is precise and evocative, conjuring a tensile strength with an angelic disposition. Manski played both acoustic piano and synthesizer with understated authority, his bass-like lines on synth providing a nice bottom to the proceedings. Playing electric guitar, Matos gave the music its melodic backbone and compositional contour. Although all three musicians were highly proficient, none of them flaunted their technical skills. Instead, they let these simple pieces shine in beautifully direct ways.


For the last two numbers, the group invited tenor saxophonist Nathan Blehar to join the trio. Blehar, who owned Northampton’s The Dirty Truth from 2008 – 2017, now lives in Warwick, MA, and is a long-time friend and colleague of Matos. On “Carlos”, a beautiful piece that seemed to be constructed of a series of two-note commas, he soloed convincedly and gave the ensemble a velvety depth.


Serpa, who was born and raised in Portugal, has used her career success to advocate for women and social justice. She is a charter member of the We Have Voice Collective, a diverse group of musicians, performers, scholars, and thinkers who are shifting the cultural landscape by fostering awareness, inclusion, and the creation of safe(r) spaces for all. She conceived and composed Recognition (2020), a multi-disciplinary work that traces the historical legacy of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. Serpa (along with fellow musician Jen Shyu) is the co-founder of Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³), an important non-profit organization created to empower and elevate women and non-binary musicians. On “Degrowth”, one of two originals with lyrics, Serpa exhorted us to “fly less, drive less, walk more, slow down, buy less, waste less, look more, listen more.”

It was entirely appropriate to have Saturday’s concert at IMA, a women-centered recording studio and retreat space best known for their rock and roll camps for girls. Serpa and IMA co-founder Ann Hackler had a lot to talk about over dinner and our post-show reception.


Serpa and Matos’ lovely 10 year old son Lourenzo came along for the trip. We ate food cooked by Priscilla Page and yours truly, the musicians stayed in the home of Dorothy Nemetz and John Todd, who were at the dinner and concert, and we shared conversation in the home of Ann Hackler and June Millington. Along with the good vibe of the performance venue (dubbed “the musical queendom”), the evening was an exercise in relationship building.


The increase in the number of women in jazz has coincided with the proliferation of jazz studies programs on college campuses, the Me Too movement and the fight for equal rights more generally, and the presence of powerful role models like Geri Allen, Nicole Mitchell and Terri Lyne Carrington. It makes perfect sense that the higher profile of women in jazz manifests itself in how musicians relate to each other, how they are treated by the industry and perhaps even the very shape of jazz to come.


Tickling the Ivories: A World of Piano

A World of Piano, a series of three solo concerts, celebrated its 13th season at the Arts Trust Building in Northampton, February 23-25, as Alexis Marcelo (Friday), Kris Davis (Saturday) and Rob Schwi


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