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Patrick Cornelius: From ECM to Acadia National Park

Photo credit: Vincent Soyez

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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I very much always just wanted to swing in the tradition of Bird, Duke Ellington and Wayne Shorter, so this music can kind of be regarded as ECM filtered through the lens of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. —Patrick Cornelius
With a persistently active live and equally dynamic release schedule in his back pocket, alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius continues to push the boundaries of the straight-ahead approach to jazz into a more modern context. Since his first recording as a leader—2006's self-released Lucid Dream featuring a cast of fellow Berklee College of Music Students from the time in pianist Aaron Parks, drummer Kendrick Scott, Nick Vayenas on trombone and singer Gretchen Parlato—the New York-based saxophonist has released eight albums to his name, including the most recent Acadia: Way of the Cairns (Whirlwind Recordings, 2020). Between alternating instrumentations, ranging from quartet to octet arrangements, Cornelius has built a substantial repertoire that establishes his reputation as a "straight-ahead guy," who firmly builds on the bebop and post-bop traditions of past masters. But there's more to Mr. Cornelius than meets the eye.

Having kept a close musical relationship to a select few collaborators, Cornelius has been able to create and work on his distinct style and characteristic alto tone in a comfortable, familiar environment over more than a decade. Among his close collaborators are former Berklee students, such as Kendrick Scott and Nick Vayenas, on the one hand, and musicians he met while studying at Manhattan School of music on the other—namely bassist Michael Janisch, pianist Kristjan Randalu and drummer Paul Wiltgen. It's the latter three with the addition of trumpeter Quentin Collins who formed the TransAtlantic Collective and released their debut album Traveling Song in 2008 on Janisch's own label, Whirlwind Recordings. Which is where Cornelius' newest album ties in.

Built out of the ashes of the TransAtlantic Collective, Cornelius and Janisch gathered the respective musicians, save Collins, back together in 2019, to write and record new music—however this time around in a more democratic fashion, that reflects each member's distinct musical and compositional character. On Acadia: Way of the Cairns Cornelius and his partners step out of their comfort zone and deliver an energetic set of inspired compositions that skillfully cross a dry New York approach with European eclecticism and then some.

In a conversation with All About Jazz, Cornelius offers detailed insight into how the four initially got together, what the Acadia National Park and the ECM label have to do with the compositions on the new album and why it isn't credited to "Acadia," the band, as originally intended.

All About Jazz: Your last album This Should Be Fun (Posi-Tone Records, 2019) came out only a year ago. Is there a specific reason for this short period of time between that release and your most recent album, Acadia: Way of the Cairns? Does it have something to do with the Corona pandemic?

Patrick Cornelius: No it doesn't. I guess you could explain it like this: a few records prior, I recorded the octet album While We're Still Young (Whirlwind Recordings, 2016), which I wrote as a result from getting a grant from Chamber Music America back in 2012. I wrote that music over the duration of a year, then we did a tour and recorded the album within the span of two weeks. And then it basically just sat on the shelf for three years before it was finally released on Michael [Janisch]'s label, Whirlwind Recordings, in 2016.

In New York City at the time I had a regular gig at the Cornelia Street Café, which had been a real monument in New York's underground jazz world but unfortunately went out of business since. My focus then for several years was to keep the octet going with that music and writing other charts for it. However, since recording an octet is quite the expensive endeavor, I wasn't thinking about doing anymore albums at the time but just keep writing for the octet. When Cornelia Street Café closed, Marc Free from Posi-Tone Records approached me. Which can be explained by the fact that my relationship with him and Nick O'Toole over at Posi-Tone goes back quite a bit.

AAJ: Feel free to expand in a small detour if you want.

PC: I did an album called Maybe Steps with them [Posi-Tone] in 2011 and we were really happy with that record, but we just never got around to do another project. The way they do projects is very different from the way Whirlwind Recordings, for example, approaches them. Posi-Tone likes to be involved in every step of the process, from the beginning to the end. They help you pick the cats among their stable, they help decide on the music and take a hands-on role in the process. Which is in complete opposition to Whirlwind, who pretty much will just publish your finished product, provided they like it. They both have a really great body of work so I trust their instincts and experience and enjoy working with both.

(End of detour)

Circling back to Marc Free approaching me at a time where I felt that I was ready to do another album with them, and that ended up being This Should Be Fun, which is kind of the opposite of the octet project, because there was no agenda or theme for the recording. We just wanted to get together, play some tunes and have fun. Which finally brings me to this new album, Acadia: Way of the Cairns.

Michael Janisch and I go way back and have played together on multiple albums and multiple tours. As it so happens, he played bass on my 2016 tour as well. After that octet tour, we started talking about when we would get together again and started throwing around ideas. Finally, in 2018 we decided to get the guys from the TransAtlantic Collective back together and try going on tour—TransAtlantic Collective being the first time the four of us—Michael, Kristjan Randalu, Paul Wiltgen and I—recorded together way back in 2008. At first, we were just going to do a tour, but then we decided that it would be appropriate to record another album, too. But it was going to be its own, standalone band, not another "Patrick Cornelius" project. Finally, we recorded the album in May 2019, around the same time I was doing gigs in support of This Should Be Fun. The plan with Michael Kristjan and Paul was to do some touring, well, pretty much right around this time (laughs). And the name of the band for that tour was going to be Acadia. By April, at the latest, we knew that there wasn't going to be a tour in fall. And since the band Acadia doesn't really exist without being on tour together and presenting the music, and it just so happens to be that I wrote most of the songs on the album, the project has now simply been released in my name.

AAJ: So it being a collective project is the reason why each of you was involved in the compositional process and why the music feels like you've multiple leaders at times?

PC: Yeah, the idea was for everyone to write tunes and then bring them in. Michael of course was busy with a thousand other projects, so he didn't get around to writing any. Kristjan wrote two songs, of which one was too hard for me to play (laughs).

AAJ: You certainly don't have the flexibility and range of simultaneousness on saxophone as the piano does.

PC: Actually, it wasn't the technical aspect that was difficult for me. It was a problem conceptually. Because conceptually he's [Kristjan] just brilliant and incredibly intricate. He's thinking of multiple polyharmonic structures while at the same layering a variety of rhythms. So for that one I just needed more time (laughs). But "Valse Hésitante" turned out really nice.

And then Paul wrote something last minute, the closer "Ten Years Later," which has this very characteristic Paul-vibe to it. Back when we were the TransAtlantic Collective, he and I did most of the writing and his tunes have this very particular flavor to them. It really felt like getting back in the saddle again.

AAJ: You already went back quite extensively, mentioning your first outing playing together with this lineup, on 2008's Travelling Song, credited to the TransAtlantic Collective. Could you go into detail as regards to what your first musical contact with these guys looked like?

PC: That album was actually my second album. The first album I recorded was co-led with trombonist Nick Vayenas, whom I've collaborated a lot with over the years and who I studied with at Berklee. The entire band was from Berklee actually. Kendrick Scott on drums, Peter Slavov on bass, Dan Kaufman on piano. We all attended Berklee at the same time. My first actual album as a leader came out in 2006. That was Lucid Dream. At the time Michael Janisch got wind of the fact that I was coming out with an album, so I sent him a copy and then he asked me to come over and do some gigs with him. Consequently, in the fall of 2006 he brought me over and put a band together for me. When the original drummer for that project fell through short notice, I suggested Paul, whom I'd played with prior. Finally, we both went over for the gigs and since we had a lot of fun, we wanted to do it again a year later, but make it a proper band.

The pianist on that tour was Dan Tepfer. After the first gigs however he had to cancel the tour, so we called Kristjan, who'd gone to Manhattan School of music with Paul and I. The tour went great, but for some reason the live recording which we'd planned at the end didn't really come together for us. At the time we decided that that wasn't going to be it. Therefore, we immediately made plans to do a studio recording that spring. Michael managed to book us for a week at Ronnie Scott's as the opening act for Avishai Cohen, the bassist, which gave us week of gigs before going into the studio. Dan couldn't do the project, so again, we had Kristjan come and he was perfect for the project. Both pianists have deep classical roots, but they also have very different sounds on the instrument. I find that Dan's playing is very improvisational, he's so creative at all times, whereas Kristjan has this consistently big sound that worked with Paul and Michael really well and was immediately a comfortable fit. So we went into the studio, had a great time, the record turned out nice and then we toured for a couple of years until everyone in the band got married and had children all at once (laughs).

AAJ: Getting the band back together after a several year break, what seemed to have changed most between you four? Musically speaking.

PC: It's hard to compare, because compositionally I made the most changes. Since this wasn't going to be a solo project of mine, but a band project, I specifically wanted to write music that featured the band as an ensemble. Not just the same old head—solo—head—solo arrangements. I wrote tunes that integrated everything. Everyone plays the melody at some point, sometimes it's traded across the instruments and so on. I wanted to break it up a little. At our first rehearsal we were dealing mostly with getting through these new compositions. Because previously all my tunes were, well, tunes, right? Straight out of the tradition of the jazz songbook and Blue Note era sort of music, binary song forms, blues and what have you. But these are very different, so we had to figure them out first.

AAJ: There is an audible difference between your other outings and this new album. The compositional structures are more expansive and at times multi-thematic with each voice getting a say.

PC: There's only one tune on the album that has a bop-like 4/4 swing going on, and that's "Personal Beehives." It has this very "Tristanoish" melody over a very rapidly shifting metric and harmonic background. That one's pretty much a head—solo—head—solo form, but the melody and the time modulations are unconventional. Most of the other tunes are more stretched out. Stylistically I was very aware that I was writing for this project, which is very European based. So I was basically only listening to ECM sort of albums for several months while writing the material, because I wanted to step outside my comfort zone.

AAJ: Randalu has recorded with ECM, delivering his debut for the label with 2018's Absence, featuring Ben Monder and Markku Ounaskari. Are there any specific albums that served as your main inspiration?

PC: Yeah I listened to that one, too. Obviously, I listened to all the Kenny Wheeler albums. Avishai Cohen, the trumpet player's more recent album, too. I went to college with Avishai and played a lot with him. He was always the consummate Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham type of trumpeter, and it's interesting to see how his compositional ear developed in a different way now. I also listened to Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny and John Taylor's work with ECM in the process.

AAJ: If you had to choose only one Kenny Wheeler album from his ECM releases, which would it be?

PC: Music for Large and Small Ensembles (ECM, 1990). Is that everyone's favorite? That one's my favorite for sure. Especially since I've been getting into large ensemble writing recently. It seems like every time I revisit that one, there's new stuff to hear. But this time I mainly wanted to listen to things that weren't the normal straight-ahead thing. One thing about most ECM albums that I appreciate, is the heavy hand of the producer. I know that Manfred Eicher deconstructs tunes and really dictates the way things go in a manner that the artist might not realize when writing and performing the tunes. I think that's very valuable conceptually for the mindset.

AAJ: Hands-on in the case of Manfred Eicher meaning a whole other thing, when compared to Posi-Tone of course.

PC: Yes. I've heard about how Manfred directs performances, telling musicians to repeat or go back to a specific section through the headphones while they're playing. Whereas Marc Free from Posi-Tone doesn't get involved in the actual performance, he's more involved in the background production of the session. Anyhow, the involvement of a producer is valuable to me. Because anything I can do to break a habit is helpful. For this project it was important to me, to do something different.

AAJ: And it definitely sounds different from your other output. There's a European note that guides the entire session, especially in Randalu's harmonic framework on piano in "Valse Hésitante" or "Darkest Night," but also elsewhere, forms and melodies are more progressive than on other works of yours. Did Randalu's playing influence your writing and had you also listened to classical music as an inspiration? Or does it all go back to your listening to ECM records?

PC: All of the above is true. Also, this is only my second concept album. I wanted there to be a consistent and sort of cinematic feeling to everything. I wanted the music to be evocative of something physical, because my tunes were all inspired by the different places and experiences I had at Acadia National Park. In that sense, yes, I was very aware of who I was writing for and inspired by the music I was listening to. For the song "Darkest Night" specifically, I was just trying to think of a melody that would sound very ominous but slow moving. For some reason I had the melody from the first Tim Burton Batman movie in my head, which Danny Elfman composed. That's what inspired the melody for "Darkest Night," where the melody is in the bass, because, obviously, the lower the melody comes, the more evil it sounds, right (laughs)?

AAJ: You trying to go in a different direction with this album comes through very naturally and at no point does the shift in approach sound forced.

PC: I very much always just wanted to swing in the tradition of Bird, Duke Ellington and Wayne Shorter, so this music can kind of be regarded as ECM filtered through the lens of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker (laughs).

AAJ: In light of the entire project originally being called Acadia, could you expand on that thematic concept? Why is it called Acadia?

PC: About four and a half years ago I had spinal surgery, which took me out of commission for a long time. As I started to recover, my wife and I decided to take a getaway and drive up to Maine to visit Acadia National Park. The interesting thing about Maine is that there are dark sky ordinances, meaning that outside of urban areas, there are no lights at all, which preserves the night sky. A perfect opportunity to observe the Milky Way and stars. Plus a meteor shower as well as the International Space Station were going to be visible. It was such an amazing experience that we decided to return for a whole week with our kids the folllowing year.

Over the years since, we've been to a bunch of the National Parks and have become people who really love the outdoors. So when it came to concepts to write music about, it seemed obvious to write about things you love and inspire you, and for me that's become nature. The first place where I went and discovered my love for it was Acadia, which seemed like a great theme to write music about. Two of my favorite pieces on the album are "Star Party" and "Darkest Night." "Star Party" came to me while we were lying on the sand beach, watching the International Space Station crossing through the meteor shower. Astronomers were there, showing us all the different constellations. Afterwards—we stayed out way past everyone else had left—we walked back to the car, but everything was pitch black and I had a little anxiety attack, which inspired "Darkest Night" (laughs).

AAJ: Seeing how, for obvious reasons, touring is on ice for the time being, what are you currently up to instead?

PC: We hope that by a year from now some gigs will start back up. In the meantime, I'm very busy teaching. I have a few private students but mainly I'm on faculty at the United Nations International School In New York, where I teach middle school woodwinds band and where I have saxophone and flute students. I also teach for a charitable organization called Musical Mentors, that provides music lessons to underserved young people. I've also been doing a lot of composing as well as practicing my doubles, clarinet and tenor. And last but not least I've of course got my family to take care of—my two kids are currently at home, distance learning.

AAJ: It's too bad that you're currently not able to perform this music live together, but we hope that you'll be able to get back to it rather sooner than later!

PC: The tour was the whole point of doing the album (laughs)! We'll definitely come back with this music though. We're not giving up on this project, it was too much fun!

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