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While We’re Still Young

Patrick Cornelius

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

4 out of 5

While We’re Still Young

This is vibrant, highly colourful music full of good compositional ideas and some great playing, with all members of the ensemble contributing strongly.

Patrick Cornelius

“While We’re Still Young”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4682)

The New York based saxophonist, flautist and composer Patrick Cornelius is part of the international creative circle nurtured by bassist and Whirlwind Recordings proprietor Michael Janisch. He first came to my attention when he appeared on Janisch’s début album “Purpose Built” back in 2009, the record that helped to kick start the whole Whirlwind phenomenon.

Later in 2009 Cornelius visited the UK with The Transatlantic Collective, an alliance of leading young American and European jazz musicians co-led by Janisch and Cornelius. I was fortunate enough to see the group perform live at Dempsey’s in Cardiff and to meet with Cornelius at this time. I have since enjoyed and reviewed a number of his solo albums including “Lucid Dream” (2006), “Fierce” (2010), “Maybe Steps” (2011) and “Infinite Blue” (2013).

“While We’re Still Young” is arguably Cornelius’ most ambitious offering to date, a suite of pieces composed by Cornelius and inspired by the poetry of A.A. Milne. The music is played by an eight piece band led by Cornelius who features on alto and soprano saxes plus flute. Many of the other musicians are old associates including trombonist Nick Vayenas, bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Kendrick Scott who all studied with Cornelius at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston. Trumpeter Jason Palmer is also an associate from the Boston days while pianist Gerald Clayton, guitarist Miles Okazaki and tenor saxophonist/bass clarinettist John Ellis are acquaintances from Cornelius’ time in New York.

Cornelius has recorded with a number of these musicians before with Clayton, Slavov and Scott completing the quartet featured on the excellent “Maybe Steps”. Vayenas has guested on most of Cornelius’ solo projects while Palmer also appeared on Janisch’s “Purpose Built”.

The inspiration for “While We’re Still Young” stemmed from the birth of Cornelius’ first child, Isabella. The family copy of A.A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young”, which had entertained several generations of the Cornelius family, was passed down to Patrick who then read the poems to his then infant daughter. “From the very first time I started reading these poems to Isabella I remember an instant desire to write music inspired by each individual vignette” recalls Cornelius.
The opportunity to do so came several years later in the form of a commission from Chamber Music America’s New Jazz programme and a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation.

Cornelius continues;
“My goal for this project was to select a handful of individual poems from “When We Were Very Young” and write programmatic movements inspired by the imagery that each one evokes using the breadth of my experience as a musician. I thought that if I could write music that depicts the essence and mood of Milne’s literary gems filtered through my own voice as an emergent composer then the project would be successful. The concept of lineage and emotional inheritance is important to this project and when I was composing it was important that listeners hear my musical lineage, my compositional influences”. Cornelius cites these as including classical composers such as Bach and Debussy alongside jazz giants such as Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker. He also stresses the influence of his peers, including the current members of his octet.

The suite comprises of six pieces, most of them between seven and ten minutes in duration, something that ties in with Cornelius’ concept of “programmatic movements”. We begin with “Sand Between The Toes”, arguably one of the lesser known items in the Milne canon. It begins with the rich sound of the four unaccompanied horns in a kind of chorale before adopting a joyous groove with the addition of the other musicians. Clayton takes the first solo, unaccompanied at first before being joined by Slavov and Scott as the music temporarily goes into piano trio mode. Clayton is an imaginative soloist, one of the best contemporary jazz pianists around, and he sounds great here. Cornelius then takes over with a garrulous but good natured alto solo, this in turn superseded by the rounded, fruity tones of Vayenas on trombone. Okazaki’s solo features an acoustic, Spanish guitar type sound before the piece resolves itself with a restatement of the theme by the horns and a delicate solo piano coda courtesy of Clayton.

The shimmering guitar and piano intro to “Water Lilies” evokes images of dappled sunlight and rippling water while Palmer’s fragile trumpet sound hints at the delicacy of the flowers of the title. There’s some delightfully measured ensemble playing here plus longer solos from the supremely fluent Palmer plus the leader on lightly skipping soprano sax. Finally the piece comes full circle with a gentle piano and guitar coda.

“Jonathan Jo” reveals a more robust side of Cornelius’ writing and the octet’s playing with its punchy horn ensemble parts and highly rhythmic piano, bass and drums. Ellis takes the first solo on muscular, big boned tenor and he’s followed by a vivaciously flowing excursion from Clayton on piano. Vayenas’ trombone solo offers a similar vibrancy and fluency and there’s also something of a feature for Scott at the drums.

“The Invaders” juxtaposes contemporary references with the heritage of New Orleans and Ellington. It’s one of the most charming pieces on the album, a kind of slow march arranged with the utmost delicacy and precision, rich in colour and texture and featuring some delightful ensemble playing plus a particularly memorable solo from Ellis on bass clarinet.

At a little under three minutes “Lines and Squares” is by far the shortest track on the album. It begins with a rousing horn chorale that leads into a brief statement of the bop inspired theme, this in turn leading to a mercurial solo from Okazaki. There are brief cameos from Vayenas and Ellis plus some tricky unison horn passages on this tightly focussed, all too fleeting, explosion of energy.

By way of contrast the closing “Vespers” is the longest piece on the album, one that develops gradually and organically from Clayton’s appropriately child like opening piano motif. Delicately picked guitar and warm hued horn textures advance the tune with Okazaki soloing at some length.
As the music becomes more dynamic we hear solos from the fiery but graceful Palmer followed by the leader on fluent but incisive alto sax. There’s some high octane ensemble playing too with Scott driving the group from behind the kit. However, in keeping with the theme of the piece all is resolved with the whisper of delicately picked solo guitar.

Choosing the poems of A.A. Milne to base a suite around may seem a bit cutesy but there’s nothing bland or saccharine about Cornelius’ music. This is vibrant, highly colourful music full of good compositional ideas and some great playing with all members of the group contributing strongly.  All the horn players contribute memorable solos, as does Clayton, but it’s Okazaki’s guitar that is arguably the most individual instrumental voice, one that helps to give the music a particularly distinctive flavour. Credit is also due to the production team of Cornelius and his co-producer Kyle Saulnier, plus engineer Tyler McDiarmid. 

The album package features impressive artwork by the British artist Alban Lowe who has designed a number of covers for Whirlwind musicians. His work here evokes the spirit of A.A. Milne, alluding to the classic illustrations by E.H. Shepard that graced “When We Were Young”, but adding a contemporary twist.       

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