Jazzed: The Voice Of Freedom

A Talk With Emerson Susan Corley

August March
4 min read
The Voice of Freedom
Emerson Susan Corley
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Music, a universal means of expression among humans, is often rendered into categories and given a hierarchical structure. But despite our species’ tendency to capture, organize and delineate, the phenomenon of producing sound for creative reasons is essentially a liberating activity. Music breaks down the boundaries that seemingly separate us into individual units of existence and experience. I discussed these aesthetic tendencies and related subjects in a recent conversation with Albuquerque musician Emerson Susan Corley. Corley, a classically trained vocalist, helms Entourage, a local ensemble lately renowned for their sumptuous reiteration of the American Songbook through jazzy inflections and knowing nuance.

Alibi: What brought you to Albuquerque, and how did that decision shape your musical journey?

I came to Albuquerque from Boston in 1992. I was a classical singer, mostly opera. I specialized in trouser roles. Cherubino in
The Marriage of Figaro, Hansel in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel … lots of pants roles which fit me very well. I didn’t get into the jazz thing seriously until about five years ago. It was quite a shift, starting a multi-genre band that morphed into a jazz band that specializes in standards.

How did your transition from mezzo-soprano to jazzer come about?

Back in 2007 I had an unfortunate experience outside my house: attempted robbery at knifepoint. While I was recovering—the robbers didn’t get me by the way, but in my struggle to get away from them, I fell and hurt myself rather badly—I thought, “Life’s not a dress rehearsal,” and “What do I want to do that I’ve never done?” Believe it or not, I decided I wanted to perform the music of The Carpenters. So I put together a band for one concert, to do just that, to get it out of my system. We played a benefit concert. As we were about to go on, my guitarist at the time said, “Is this all there is? Do we have to stop being a band after this?” Afterwards, a friend of mine in the audience said, “You need to sing jazz; you need to sing ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’” I started listening to a lot of jazz recordings, worked with John Proulx; one thing led to another. It’s one of those things where the universe said, “This is what you should be doing now.”

What does jazz mean to you?

I grew up in Louisiana. I had relatives I’d visit often in New Orleans. I’d go to the French Quarter and see and hear these amazing musicians on the street corners, hanging out, playing jazz. I’d hear jazz all around me as a kid and didn’t know it was becoming part of my spirit, becoming part of my blood. When the opportunity to play jazz came about, it was already in me; it was asleep in me. When jazz awakened in me, I felt like I was finally home. I love classical music, don’t get me wrong. But it’s very constrained. Through jazz, I can totally be myself. It’s freedom.

Why should people listen to the standards, the Great American Songbook?

For similar reasons … the freedom, the timeless quality of the stuff. I’ve had a lot of people, especially the younger fans in their 20s, come up to me and say, “Yo man, I don’t know your music; I’ve never heard it before, but I love it. It speaks to me.” I think this music is very romantic, the songwriting, the lyrics are very lush. It never grows old. We have fans that are 2 years old and fans that are 100 years old. That speaks to the music.

Next Week: Corley chats with March about cutting an album in Burque, the influence of Arnold Bodmer and the future of jazz in this town.
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