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Patrick Cornelius

Acadia : Way of the Cairns

by Ian Mann

November 09, 2020


The playing, from all the members of the band, is excellent throughout and the writing is both varied and evocative, and consistently intelligent. Cornelius succeeds in capturing a real sense of place

Patrick Cornelius

“Acadia; Way of the Cairns”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4766)

Patrick Cornelius – alto saxophone, Michael Janisch – double bass, Kristjan Randalu – piano,
Paul Wiltgen – drums

Although “Way of the Cairns”  is credited to its principal composer, saxophonist Patrick Cornelius describes his group Acadia as “a new collective quartet”.

However this doesn’t quite tell the whole story, as Cornelius goes on to explain;
“But before we were Acadia we were the TransAtlantic Collective, an older collective ensemble, and we played close to 100 concerts in 8 different countries from 2006 to 2009. The music we make as individual artists today is the direct result of the experiences, memories and friendships we created together as a band years ago. A decade after the last TransAtlantic Collective performance we decided it was time to make music together again.”

The original TransAtlantic Collective was actually a quintet, the four musicians listed above plus the British trumpet and flugelhorn player Quentin Collins. Co-founders Cornelius and Janisch represent the American contingent, although Whirlwind record label founder Janisch has now been based in London for well over a decade. Meanwhile Randalu is originally from Estonia and Wiltgen from Luxembourg, although both have studied and lived in the US, a factor leading to the formation of the original group.

The TransAtlantic Collective released its only album on British saxophonist Alan Barnes’ Woodville label in 2008. Titled “Traveling Song” the recording featured compositions by all of the group’s members and in 2009 I enjoyed a live performance by the quintet at the much missed Dempsey’s venue in Cardiff, which included most of the “Traveling Song” material. Review here;

Meanwhile Cornelius has continued to pursue a solo career and has released a number of albums on the Whirlwind imprint, namely “Fierce” (2010), “infinite Blue” (2013) and “While We’re Still Young” (2016), all of which have been reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.

Cornelius has also enjoyed an association with the Posi-Tone label, resulting in the albums “Maybe Steps” (2011) and “This Should Be Fun” (2019). Earlier works include “Lucid Dreams” (Peppa Cone Music, 2006) and “Nick Vayenas / Patrick Cornelius Quintet” (2000), a joint venture with trombonist Nick Vayenas.

Originally from San Antonio, Texas but now living in Brooklyn, New York City, Cornelius has nevertheless developed a love of America’s ‘great outdoors’. The new band name, Acadia, is taken from a wilderness area in the North Eastern corner of Maine, where Cornelius has enjoyed hiking trips with his young family. The area is one of America’s National Parks and many of the compositions on “Way of the Cairns” are inspired by Acadia and America’s other National Parks as Cornelius’ liner notes explain;
“America’s National Parks are priceless treasures. This music was inspired by the splendour of Acadia. It was in this place that my passion for the outdoors was born, along with my desire to help preserve our national public lands in whatever small way I can. If this music inspires you please consider visiting Acadia, Mt. Rainier, Glacier, Denali, Zion, Badlands, Yellowstone, Redwoods, Olympic, Yosemite, Big Bend or any of America’s other National Parks, and supporting their conservancies.”
He dedicates the album to “the natural wonder and beauty of our living planet, and to the spirit of musical kinship”.

Of the music he says;
“‘Way of the Cairns’ is very much the sound of a collective. My idea was to feature the band as the lead voice, rather than myself. There’s a definite chemistry here, not super straight-ahead, but not avant garde either, embracing the European aesthetic, but with the ability to swing hard as well. That’s the unique magic of this band”.

Seven of the album’s nine tracks are written by Cornelius, with Randalu and Wiltgen contributing one tune each. In keeping with the spirit of the earlier TransAtlantic Collective there remains a strong focus on melody, but with Collins absent the group sound is less obviously rooted in the bop / hard bop era, and thus sounds convincingly contemporary. Some of the themes have an almost folk like quality about them that reflects the album’s sources of inspiration.

The album commences with the title track, a musical depiction of the ascent of Great Head Mountain, with texture and tempo changes being deployed to describe the climb. Cornelius and Janisch introduce the piece, their opening unison sax / bass melody forming the bedrock of the tune. Subsequently there’s an extended bass feature for the always impressive Janisch, unaccompanied at first, but later augmented by sax, piano and drums. Cornelius also strikes out on his own as the piece unfolds, and he also exchanges phrases with Randalu, their dialogue becoming more energetic intense as the ‘climb’ progresses. The piece encompasses a number of different sections, presumably depicting the various stages of the ascent, before finally finishing with a moment of sudden triumph.

Following the rigours of that mountain ascent “Star Party” finds Cornelius relaxing on the beach and staring at the stars. The feel is more relaxed, with a greater focus on pure melody, and the piece has even been released as a single.  The introductory theme features a Pat Metheny like tunefulness and forms the basis for an expansively lyrical piano solo from Randalu. The leader’s alto lines are pure toned and melodic, but still pleasingly incisive, as he demonstrates during the course of his own solo, as the intensity and momentum of the music again increases.

The darting, boppish melodies and shifting grooves of “Blueberry Mountain” are intended to convey “a sense of tumbling, childlike excitement”. Cornelius stretches out with great assurance, soloing lithely above a bustling drum groove. Janisch’s bass provides the link into Randalu’s piano solo, which cascades and tumbles like a mountain stream, buffeted by Wiltgen’s drums.

Again it’s back to the shoreline for the impressionistic “Seawall Sunrise”, a study in atmospheric tranquillity that encompasses the soft drone of Janisch’s bowed bass, Randalu’s limpid piano and the gentle shimmer of Wiltgen’s cymbals.  Subsequently Cornelius’ piping alto emerges, analogous to the sight of the sun peeping over the horizon. Randalu then solos lyrically at the piano, shadowed by the gentle bustle of Wiltgen’s brushed drums. He then hands over to the leader’s fluent alto, which probes gently but incisively.

“Darkest Night” centres on Janisch’s melodic, but powerful and deeply resonant bass. It’s a dramatic piece that embraces a broad range of moods and dynamics and the bassist shares the spotlight with some of the leader’s most impassioned playing of the set. Wiltgen also features strongly with a drum feature in the tune’s latter stages. This is a piece that emphasises that American National Parks, such as Acadia, are still places of genuine wildness.

Contrast is a constant factor throughout this album and Randalu’s “Valse Hesitante” calms things down again. Although the pianist has lived and worked in New York he is still very much rooted in the European classical tradition and this is reflected in the lyricism of a piece that features its composer extensively. An extended passage of unaccompanied piano introduces the work, with Randalu later joined by Cornelius’ alto. The piece goes through a series of subtle metric changes and double bass and subtly brushed drums are subsequently added to the equation. The overall mood is one of gentle reflection, and this is embodied in an intimate and disciplined quartet performance, with the rhythm section subtly complementing the softly eloquent piano and saxophone exchanges.

“Personal Beehives” takes its inspiration from the music of alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist Lennie Tristano. Intricate unison passages are interspersed by exploratory solos from Randalu and Cornelius, which see both the pianist and saxophonist stretching out fluently, nimbly supported by Janisch and Wiltgen.

“On The Precipice” re-introduces the idea of the Parks as true wildernesses. Introduced by Randalu’s insistent, staccato piano motif the piece embraces a frenetic, urgent feel, as embodied by the leader’s scurrying alto sax sorties and Randalu’s turbulent piano solo. The piece also includes an energetic drum feature from the highly talented Wiltgen.

The drummer is also a composer of note and it’s Wiltgen’s own “Ten Years Later”, the title presumably a nod to Acadia’s precious incarnation as the TransAtlantic Collective, that concludes the album.  Written to celebrate the re-union it’s an elegant ballad that combines unison melody lines with a lyrical, and subtly exploratory solo, from Cornelius on alto. There’s an elegiac, almost hymn like, quality to the music, making it the perfect album closer. 

Indeed, after a decade away it’s good to have TransAtlantic Collective back, albeit under another name. This first album from the re-incarnated group may be primarily Cornelius’ project but that old collective and co-operative spirit is still very much there with Janisch, Randalu and Wiltgen all making huge contributions to the success of these performances.

The playing, from all four members of the band, is excellent throughout and the writing is both varied and evocative, and consistently intelligent. The semi-conceptual theme actually adds to the success of this well programmed recording and Cornelius succeeds in capturing a real sense of place. In these days of Covid-19 we need our National Parks and other open spaces more than ever.

Assuming that Acadia continue to work together one supposes that their next album will be a more democratic affair with the writing duties more evenly divided around the members of the group. In these troubled times that’s something to look forward to. Hopefully, one day, they’ll be able to tour again, too.


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