Classical Music

Erica Papillion-Posey Wants to Summon Our Better Angels

Jazz and classical musician Erica Papillion-Posey finds inspiration in Abraham Lincoln’s notion of our better angels.
Jim Medford
Jazz and classical musician Erica Papillion-Posey finds inspiration in Abraham Lincoln’s notion of our better angels.
Denver-based singer and composer Erica Papillion-Posey tags social-media posts with “Think higher, resonate higher, vibrate higher, create higher.”

That spirit runs through her third album, Better Angels. She borrowed the title from a phrase that Abraham Lincoln used in his inaugural address.

“He’s talking about the entire racial civil strife that was going on at the time with slavery,” Papillion-Posey explains. “He’s asking people to summon their best selves and refrain from judging others for the sake of humanity.”

Few had heard the “better angels” phrase until Barack Obama used it. “In his first major speech, [Obama] used that term. I had already selected the term long before that. But it really did catapult it back into the mainstream consciousness, where he’s literally quoting Abraham Lincoln’s sentiment on calling on your better angels.”

Papillion-Posey says the main theme of Better Angels — whose release will be celebrated on Friday, April 12, at the King Center on the Auraria campus — is that “when casting decisions, for whatever reasons, on others or for others, you always call on your better angels in decision making, deferring to the best part of you in the process.”

In the prelude to the three-part title track, which musically borrows from Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, her favorite orchestral work of all time, Papillion-Posey asks the questions, “Where are you? What kind of life is living you? What level of consciousness is doing you? Are you high with your Angels in the Utmost? Do you catch vibes doin’ the Most? Do you skate by in the almost? Or, do you dwell in the abyss of the Guttermost?”

Papillion-Posey wrote the music and lyrics for ten of the eleven original cuts on Better Angels, which she recorded over two six-hour sessions last November after a warm-up gig at Dazzle the day after Thanksgiving.

“The more you record, the better you get into it, the better you get, the more you learn, the more you learn about yourself, your sound,” she says. “And that couldn’t be truer for me for this particular record.”

For the album, she recruited pianist Solomon Chapman, her co-writer and music director; Brooklyn-based Eric Wheeler, who’s a regular touring bassist with jazz heavyweights like DeeDee Bridgewater and Cyrus Chesnutt; and drummer Matt Chapman. Saxophonist Anisha Rush, who teaches at Metropolitan State University of Denver, guests on the album along with bassist Ron Bland, who plays on “La Bohème,” a newly arranged tribute to the late French singer and lyricist Charles Aznavour, who died last year.

She also worked with trumpeter Ron Miles, her longtime mentor and the director of MSU Denver’s Jazz Studies program, who plays on the ballad “Pour Mon Âme (For My Soul).”

Papillion-Posey, who took jazz history and theory classes with Miles at MSU while also studying in the school’s classical program, says that both he and local bassist Ken Walker told her consistently to find her own sound, “because no one can tell you about you; no one can inform you about you but you.”

So while Sarah Vaughan might be her favorite chanteuse, she doesn’t try to sound like the legendary jazz singer.

“You do yourself a disservice by trying to emulate somebody,” says Papillion-Posey. “It’s great to love, and learn from, what people have done in the past; absolutely, it will help you inform where you want to go. But to sound like you — there’s nothing more beautiful. There’s nothing like it in the world.”

Having grown up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Papillion-Posey says she’s got jazz in her DNA and that singing it comes naturally. But classical training, including for opera, has informed her approach, and her voice is honed in such a way that she’s able to project without the use of a microphone in certain settings.

“The classical music has definitely helped my endurance in the jazz world,” she says. “You really are like an athlete, classically speaking, because it’s a physical production — though all singing and instrument playing is physical. It’s just that you have to breathe. You’re taught to breathe more deeply, more physically, for your control — air preservation. There’s just a lot more that goes into it that you have to really think through in the process.”

That said, when singing jazz, there are a number of things that she doesn’t have to think about that are part and parcel of singing opera: breathing, breath control, foreign-language pronunciation, the volume of the orchestra, the wishes of a conductor or the costumes she’s wearing.

“My classical has always informed my jazz, and my jazz has always informed my classical,” she notes.
Take “Better Angels (Prelude),” for instance, on which a soprano, Christiana McMullen, sings a high C note, which Papillion-Posey says nods toward classical on purpose; she wanted to evoke the ethereal sound of an angel.

Although it’s evident from Better Angels (and her previous two albums, 2017’s From the DEEP and 2015’s The Standard Reimagined) that Papillion-Posey clearly has command over her voice, the new album also displays her compositional and lyrical skills. While dealing with the theme of “calling on your better angels in decision making,” she writes about how African-American women “are essentially considered in classism at the bottom of the barrel.”

On “Be Beautiful,” she talks about being a double other: being a woman and being black.

“You have these extra variables to deal with in society, and how we’re third-class citizens,” she says. “Not even second-class, but third-class citizens. I use those lyrics as well to talk about our place in society, of where we’ve been relegated to. So there are high themes of the term ‘Black Girl Magic’ that emanate throughout.

“And there are lots of references to angels throughout the record,” she adds, “whether I’m talking about black women as angels or people, period, as angels, or myself as an angel — but dealing with a place up higher.”

Erica Papillion-Posey CD release
7:30 p.m. Friday, April 12, King Center, 855 Lawrence Street, $25.