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the JazzMann reviews Patrick Cornelius “Maybe Steps”…

“Maybe Steps”

(Posi-Tone Records PR8089)

I first encountered the playing of the New York based alto saxophonist and composer Patrick Cornelius back in the autumn of 2009 when he appeared at Dempsey’s in Cardiff as part of the Transatlantic Collective, an all star aggregation of American and European musicians co-led by Cornelius and bassist Michael Janisch.  A review of that show can be found elsewhere on this site together with further pieces on Cornelius’ first two solo albums “Lucid Dream” (2006) and “Fierce” (2010).

“Lucid Dream” was a wide ranging affair that concentrated on Cornelius’ composing skills and featured a number of rising stars on the US scene, among them pianist Aaron Parks, drummer Kendrick Scott and vocalist Gretchen Parlato. “Fierce” was a more focussed trio affair featuring Janisch and drummer Johnathan Blake which placed the emphasis more firmly on improvisation. Nevertheless Cornelius still brought along a set of attractive compositional themes for his colleagues to work on and the result was an album that managed to be simultaneously challenging and accessible.

“Maybe Steps” marks a return to a more composition based approach but the album is less sprawling than “Lucid Dream” and is arguably Cornelius’ best release to date. Although recorded on the East Coast the album appears on the Los Angeles based Posi-Tone label and credit must be given to producer Marc Free and his team of engineers for a pinpoint mix that allows Cornelius and his band to be heard at their best. The saxophonist is joined by a core quartet featuring pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Peter Slavov with Kendrick Scott returning to the drum stool. There are also guest appearances from guitarist Miles Okazaki and from pianist Assen Doykin who replaces Clayton on the tune “My Ship”.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, Cornelius studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving to New York to complete a Master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. The tunes on “Maybe Steps” are often inspired by events in Cornelius’ life as the artist’s notes that accompanied my copy of the album make clear. The title of the fast moving modal opener “Christmas Gift” relates to the birth of his daughter Isabella on Boxing Day 2009. The turbulence of the music replicates the energy and urgency of the race to the maternity hospital. There’s a biting clarity to the alto playing that merges with Clayton’s often percussive delivery and Scott’s dynamic drumming to present a perfect sound picture of the event that inspired it.

The title track appeared in another form on the “Fierce” album. Here Cornelius invests the melody with a wistful, nostalgic feel. The title refers to the “key moments” and “big decisions” of life and the reflective mood certainly brings out the more lyrical side of the band with thoughtful solos coming from Clayton and Cornelius subtly prompted by Scott’s always colourful drumming and Slavov’s anchoring bass pulse.

“Bella’s Dreaming” was inspired by Cornelius’ sleeping infant daughter. However this is no mere lullaby but a graphic depiction of the stages of sleep-”from peaceful slumber to fitful REM to waking up crying and screaming” as Cornelius puts it. It’s only brief but packs a remarkable degree of information into just two and a half minutes, steadily building in intensity before eventually falling away in the interest of musical symmetry.

Apart from the obvious jazz influences- Parker, Coltrane, Ornette etc.-Cornelius is also a huge fan of Peter Gabriel and included a cover of Gabriel’s tune “Don’t Give Up” on “Lucid Dream”. Here the original tune “Brother Gabriel”, inspired by a depressive episode, takes the harmonic structure of Gabriel’s “Here Comes The Flood” and re-contextualises it in the form of a moving jazz ballad with quietly intelligent solos from Cornelius and Clayton above an interactive presence of supple bass and brushed drums.

Cornelius was originally classically trained and “Shiver Song” is another example of Cornelius adapting the harmonic structure of another piece and writing his own tune around it. In this instance the source is Erik Satie’s “Piece Froides # 2” which is transformed into a fast moving boppish episode with supremely fluent solos from Cornelius and Clayton and a dynamic closing drum feature from Scott. It’s surprisingly invigorating stuff.

Although influenced by other alto players Cornelius is also in thrall to the great tenor saxophonists, particularly John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Coltrane’s composition “Countdown” provides the inspiration for Cornelius’ own “Into The Stars”, an anthemic slow burner of a tune featuring a guest appearance from guitarist Miles Okazaki who takes the first solo. A reflection on the nature of the afterlife written following the death of Cornelius’ father the tune also features an astonishingly fluent alto solo plus a dexterous but moving bass solo from Slavov. The bassist also shines on the following “A Day Like Any Other” alongside the always inventive Clayton plus Cornelius himself on an airy tune celebrating Cornelius’ marriage.

Okazaki also appears on “Echoes Of Summer”, a wistful tune written in reminiscence of Cornelius’ youth. The composer and Clayton also make graceful solo contributions.

A couple of outside items follow, Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” and George Shearing’s “Conception”. Guest pianist Assen Doykin replaces Clayton for “My Ship”, an unashamedly sentimental ballad with a beautifully controlled performance from Cornelius in an intimate duo setting. Cornelius describes the Shearing piece as “a watershed tune for me, very challenging”. It’s an ultra tricky bebop piece that sees the group again extended to a quintet by the presence of Okazaki who contributes a slippery solo rapidly followed by equally busy solo passages from Cornelius and Clayton plus a drum feature from Scott. It’s enough to leave both the players and the listener feeling breathless.

The album concludes with Cornelius’ atmospheric “Le Rendez-vous Final” in which he attempts to re-create a kind of film-noir feel. Clayton’s deliberately paced piano solo and Clayton’s carefully considered hand drumming add much to the atmosphere established by the lonely cry of Cornelius’ horn. It’s an excellent example of mood building and like the rest of the album is a tribute to the compositional skills that saw Cornelius receive the ASCAP award for “Young Jazz Composer” for three years in a row back in the early 00’s.

“Maybe Steps” is a collection of sophisticated and varied compositions superbly played by a highly competent group of musicians. It’s a work that speaks of Cornelius’ increasing maturity as both a writer and musician, a player who is developing a unique voice on his instrument. His supporting musicians are uniformly excellent and the production captures every nuance of the music. Like its predecessors “Maybe Steps” is eminently accessible but still offers much to engage the serious listener. It’s a worthy addition to an already impressive catalogue of work.