Feature/Interview (PP)

Patrick Cornelius – New Album ‘Way of the Cairns’ (Whirlwind)

‘Everything was driven by friendship,’ says Texas-born, New York-based alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius of his quartet Acadia. The group’s new album Way of the Cairns, also inspired by the natural beauty of the rocky headlands of the coast of

Maine, has just been released on Whirlwind Recordings. Interview by John Fordham:

Patrick Cornelius. Photo by Vincent Soyez

He’s been growing used to the frenetic momentum of New York life – and the exhilarating challenges of jamming in its legendary jazz clubs with the best – for over 18 years, but if this month’s album by the subtly skilful Texas-raised saxophonist Patrick Cornelius was your only reference point for him, you might assume a closer affinity to rocks and wild water than skyscrapers and rammed night haunts. Cornelius has made his love of the outdoors, born of hiking and camping in America’s untamed National Parks, the focus of Way of the Cairns, his ninth album as a leader since 2006’s Lucid Dream – but if it’s dedicated to preservation of the planet’s wonders, it’s driven by the spirit of musical kinship too.

Acadia, the spry and quickthinking quartet Cornelius led on this session with Estonian pianist Kristjan Randalu, Luxembourg-born drummer Paul Wiltgen, and expat American bassist Michael Janisch, takes its name from the park in north-eastern Maine the saxophonist visits with his young family whenever he can. But the band has a collective history that goes back much further. They met as college students in the early 2000s, worked widely in Europe later in that decade as the TransAtlantic Collective, and have stayed in touch ever since, in various playing combinations, and tacit agreement that they would reunite one day for the right project. ‘Everything was driven by friendship,’ the saxophonist simply says, when we talk about that story over the phone from New York.

‘Way of the Cairns’ is a fascinating departure for Cornelius, an artist whose ventures since he completed a high-flying formal jazz education that took in the Berklee School of Music, New York’s Juilliard, and a Masters at the Manhattan School of Music (where he met Randalu and Wiltgen) have often felt like idiosyncratically contemporary variations on the expected role of a quintessentially American jazz-sax virtuoso. On his visits to London over the years, his gigs have showcased a sleek and fastmoving melodic imagination running back to such influential sources as Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz and forward to Chris Potter and the dynamic former Miles altoist Kenny Garrett – coupled with a tonal range on the alto embracing the fragility of a flute, the romanticism of Duke Ellington’s muse Johnny Hodges, and the earthiness of the blues. But with ‘Way of the Cairns’, Cornelius seems to have put all those eloquent influences to more intimately personal use – not just in compositions and solos devoted to his passion for the outdoors, but as a contributory voice within a band of powerful individuals bringing materials of their own. The latter role is part of a long story in Patrick Cornelius’s life.

‘I was a neophyte when I first came across Michael Janisch,’ he recalls. ‘I was just leaving Berklee as he was arriving, and I met him briefly then, but I was just focused on graduating at that time. Michael must have got wind on social media of my first album in 2006, and got back in touch, and none of this would have happened otherwise. He was in England by then, but came back to New York to hang out. I arranged a jam with Paul Wiltgen, they really hit it off, and at Michael’s invitation I came to London to play in a band with them, and Quentin Collins and Andrew McCormack from the UK on trumpet and piano. I’d loved England from childhood – from the time my dad, who was in the American air force, had been stationed there. The music was such fun we thought we should become a band, and that was how the TransAtlantic Collective began. The following year we toured all over the UK for a month with Dan Tepfer on piano, and then in the following May of 2008 we did some gigs in the UK, and a recording, this time with Kristjan Randalu on piano. His parents were both classical pianists and from Estonia, so his pieces were full of Estonian folk ideas – and crazy meters for an American bebop player like me!’

The TransAtlantic Collective played over 100 concerts in the USA, UK and across Europe until 2009, but when, as Cornelius puts it ‘everybody started having kids’ – including himself – the finances and logistics changed, and the group’s activities scaled down. The saxophonist broadened his private teaching in New York, began a role at the United Nations School in Manhattan, and ran a bi-monthly gig for his octet at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, an opportunity that energised his interest in composing for bigger bands. But in 2016, when Janisch ran into Paul Wiltgen at that year’s Jazz Ahead in Germany, and was moved to suggest a reunion to Patrick Cornelius, the seeds of the Arcadia project were planted.

‘It still took some time before it happened,’ Cornelius wryly observes. ‘We were all doing our own things, in different places. But then in May 2019 we got together again. My wife and I had become very involved with hiking and camping by this time, and I had the idea to write some music inspired by the national parks. I haven’t typically written much programmatic music, but I felt differently about this. I felt I could bring together my American jazz origins with influences from European players who’ve been important to me, like Jan Garbarek, Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor. I also wanted the band to sound like the cohesive unit it is, and Kristjan’s and Paul’s compositions on the album play important parts in that.’

All nine tracks on ‘Way of the Cairns’ establish strong impressions of location and mood, from the punchy Celtic dance of the title track, to the poignant wonderment of ‘Star Party’ with its Jarrett-like Randalu intro, through the skittish ‘Blueberry Mountain’ and the tenderly dreamy ‘Seawall Sunrise’, to the postboppishly swinging ‘Personal Beehives’ and the Latin-funky ‘On The Precipice’. Randalu’s ‘Valse Hésitante’ and Wiltgen’s almost carol-like finale ‘Ten Years Later’ fit seamlessly into that picture.

‘I guess “Way of the Cairns” has a Celtic feel,’ Cornelius acknowledges, ‘but Dave Holland’s ’90s bands had a big influence on it. Those great lineups from ‘Prime Directive’ and ‘Points of View’ with Steve Wilson on saxophones and Billy Kilson on drums. On Kristjan’s ‘Valse Hésitante’ we never left its slow-paced feel, it needed to be his vision of the tune. ‘Seawall Sunrise’ is about a rocky shoreline in Acadia, where me and my family would go to watch the sunrise from our campsite – despite the objections of my seven year old at the time! ‘Star Party’ was about watching the Perseids meteor showers. I’m a straightahead player, sure, but I’m not a retro recreationist. I’ve never wanted to stylistically pigeonhole myself, and I love playing anywhere with anybody and finding out where it leads. The lead voice in Acadia is all of us, and I hope, because of our different origins and travels, it embraces both the hard-swinging American jazz tradition and the European aesthetic too. I’ve never forgotten a maxim of Branford Marsalis’s from a workshop once, that he wants everything he plays to be to the greater service of the compositions – it’s not just a chance to show off your virtuosity.’

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Acadia’s Way of the Cairns is out now on Whirlwind.

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