Women Making Music: Serpentine Arborvitae, Jazz Goddess
By Peggy Ratusz
I would describe Serpentine Arborvitae as a billowing force of nature. From a vocal, as well as personal and spiritual standpoint, she steps forward at an incremental pace making herself available to heal, just as her name implies. She leads by example in the way she carries herself on and off the stages she has most recently shared with our city’s vibrant, accomplished Jazzers.
We met on one of the only days it didn’t rain this summer and what joy we felt, as we became better acquainted. Immediately I was taken by the purity of her philosophy and ideals, her honesty, her willingness to look me in the eye and open up. As an interviewer, this is a godsend and as a woman open to forming new friendships, a gift.
I witnessed Serpentine’s bold and avant-garde performances a few times and was among a throng of Jazz music lovers and aficionados one evening at Isis Music Hall’s Upstairs Lounge, and we all gave her a well-deserved standing ovation. She is simply divine and daring; gracious and funny and is one of the most authentic, in-the-moment, fearless improvisational artists I’ve ever heard or seen.
In 2007, she came to us by way of New York, Israel, California and Florida. “I felt an instant energetic connection to this place and right from the start, it was easy to relate to the people here.”
The philosophies of the late American spiritual writer, teacher and leader Earnest Holmes resonate with Serpentine and inspire her life and craft. Therefore, while living in Fort Lauderdale just before moving here, she often performed at The Center for Spiritual Living where Holmes’s doctrine is followed and revered. Performing at those services gave the world music she was writing, a time and place to be heard. It was natural for her to visit Asheville’s chapter of that spiritual community once she arrived. It’s where she began to make friends and garner support to continue to share the music she’s been exploring and expounding on for twenty years.
She describes the crux of her original material as “electronic ambient.” “A series of my writings express the mystical nature of women’s spiritually. While living in Israel, I explored Middle Eastern spiritual music and found a way to combine the feminine to Sanskrit prayers and Mantras which is reflected in part on my release called Mantra America. It is a collection of chants that I interpret in my own style. So as I arrived here to the mountains, I intuitively felt like this would be the right place to perform this music.”
Serpentine grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and her ancestry is a mix of Easter European, Polish and Spanish Gypsy. She credits her mother with instilling in her a free spirit and unabashed fervor for life and people and music. Her family possessed such a fascination with Russian Folk Music, Israeli music, European Classical music, Broadway Show music, that as a young girl, she remembers feeling that life would not seem worth living without it. “As a school girl, I was already traveling energetically in this space where I had been singing, dancing, moving to music from the time I was three years old. Growing up I heard languages that I didn’t understand, which contributes to my ability to feel free to be, and to live, in the unknown. The interesting aspect of sound, of singing, to me is the unknown aspect. So the idiom of Jazz, even though it’s so huge and there have been different styles of Jazz incepted and created over decades, gives me permission to not have to know what I’m going to do until the moments happen.”
Singing, interpreting Jazz, we both agree, encourages freedom. “It got me thinking then, about people who live in other cultures and environments, where music is indigenous. They don’t adhere to the well-tempered clavier of tones and scale, so when I think about that, it allows me to open up yet another avenue to producing sound with my voice.” In this way, one of the singers who influenced Serpentine is Betty Carter.
Carter’s free styling courage beacons Serpentine and it shows at her shows! “Though Carter didn’t possess what people called a traditionally beautiful voice, it was how she used her voice to go in between and inside the crevices of the tone, to get to the microtone that was a revelation for me to hear for the first time. She put all her emotion into a song and never imitated another instrument. She cultivated her own instrument. When I heard her sing for the first time in the late 1970’s, I told my girlfriend sitting next to me that that’s what I wanted to be.”
Serpentine had a feeling right then and there that she would be inducted somewhere into the Jazz realm. She knew if she studied Betty that she would start to understand where, within herself, and how far within herself she’d have to go to connect as deeply with her audiences. She expanded her studies to include horn players and didn’t stop until she says she “didn’t need to reference anybody anymore because I could really trust myself. I could jump into that unknown. It’s important to perform with people with whom I have a great rapport. Because once I give myself permission to be free, that’s when we all go together into that key center and place.”
What’s at the core of Arborvitae’s success in what she refers to as “free Jazzing,” is that she doesn’t get too cerebral in her approach. She is cognizant of the difference between “observing” herself and “allowing” herself. She feels there’s more beauty in mistakes than our fear allows us to see, and she believes we are overcivilized about being wrong; that occasionally sounding bad is more delicious then we allow ourselves to taste.
This woman is, without a doubt, an ageless sister of the world. And nothing proved that more comically and so too, timely than when my mantle clock chimed that it was 10am at the same time I had just asked her how old she is. She stopped and listened to three or four chimes ring out and then said, “I am one hour old right now.”
When I listen to the gamut of emotions that emerge from Serpentine while I sit in her audience, I have a similar experience that she had when she heard Betty Carter for the first time. I do want to be more like Serpentine and I encourage all of us to be more like Serpentine. Being in the audience is a major trip when she’s performing. From my own seat, I look around the room observing others reacting in a similar way as me, and I especially get a kick out of those I sense are hearing her for the first time. There’s awe on all our smiling faces. We all want to be fearless and deliberate and open. And while I look and listen to this warrior spirit on stage or in front of me in conversation, I am heartened that someone like her exists in this world—in our town—and that I can now call her friend and song sister. We’re all making room for each other on the ride.
Here’s one of the many accolades/reviews I found that to me, describes what you’ll see and hear for yourself … This from Mark Keating of Soundviews Magazine: “Serpentine does not play a horn, but wails nonetheless. A vocal trickster like Al Jarreau her singing alternates between agile and muscular and how she plays it depends on whether the arrangement is sparse or intricate. On her lament The Burning Times she shows no mercy as a writhing agonized vocal is consumed by a keening howl that a horn player might attempt, but could never match. It is the visceral impact of music that moves her.
Serpentine’s upcoming CD release this fall entitled Young Serpent is a collection of jazz standard recordings with renowned jazz pianist Fred Hersch and original songs produced and arranged by legendary saxophonist Ornette Coleman … and I urge you to attend one of her upcoming shows:
Friday, Sept 13th, Black Mountain Center for the Arts, duo with Michael Jefry Stevens, 7:30pm – 8:30pm, 225 West State Street, Black Mountain, NC
Sunday, Sept 15th, Isis Upstairs Lounge, Bill Barles, Zack Page, and Michael Davis, 8pm. 743 Haywood Road, Asheville
Friday, October 18th, White Horse Black Mountain with Bill Bares, Zack Page, and Justin Watt, 8pm optional early dinner starting at 6:30pm
Peggy Ratusz is a writer, songstress & vocal coach. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.