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Award-winning alto saxophonist-composer Patrick Cornelius has emerged as a dynamic new voice on the New York jazz scene today. After a decade in New York City, the San Antonio native a current resident of Astoria, Queens has amassed an impressive body of work as a leader, beginning with 2006’s Lucid Dream and continuing with 2010’s Fierce and 2011’s acclaimed Maybe Steps, which All About Jazz hailed for its intricate use of straightforward melodies, evocative themes, and gripping contributions from his band mates. All About Jazz writer Dan Bilawsky said about Maybe Steps: “It continues to reveal more treasures and pleasures with repeated listening,” while Britt Robison of eMusic wrote: “Cornelius manages to operate in the modern mainstream while avoiding cliché, honing a subtle but distinctive style with his frequently restrained, artfully unpredictable phrasing on alto sax.”
With the recent release of 2013’s Infinite Blue, his most accomplished work to date, Cornelius shows growth and maturation as both player and composer. “I guess I’m considering myself more and more a composer, which I never was interested in calling myself before,” he says. “It was always, ‘I’m a saxophone player and I just write tunes for myself.’ But now I’m allowing myself to call myself a composer.” And yet, others have been acknowledging Cornelius’s considerable skills as a composer for some time, beginning in 2005, the year he won his first of three consecutive ASCAP Young Composer Awards. In 2011, he was identified in the Players section of Down Beat as a rising young talent on the scene and the following year he was awarded a New Jazz Works Commission by Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Foundation.
Born into an often-traveling military family, Patrick was raised in such diverse locales as Germany, Georgia, Texas, and Great Britain. His parents nurtured his love of the fine arts from an early age, exposing him and his brothers to the theater, concerts, museums, poetry readings and classic literature. Patrick began studying the piano at the age of 5, and gravitated towards the alto saxophone as a teenager, shifting his musical focus from the works of Debussy, Grieg, and Bartok, to the sounds of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. He cut his teeth playing local gigs around his native San Antonio while still in high school, before going on to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston and The Manhattan School of Music, both on full scholarships for undergraduate and graduate studies respectively. He subsequently completed an Artist Diploma from the world famous Juilliard School.
Cornelius’ four recordings as a leader have showcased his accomplished writing and potent alto sax playing in the company of an inner circle of talented colleagues on the scene. His 2006 debut, Lucid Dreams, featured pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Sean Conly, drummer Kendrick Scott and vocalist Gretchen Parlato. In 2008, he recorded Traveling Song with The TransAtlantic Collective, which featured the U.K.-based American bassist Michael Janisch, British trumpeter Quentin Collins, Estonian pianist Kristjan Randalu and drummer Paul from Luxembourg. Cornelius’ 2010 followup as a leader, Fierce, was primarily a trio outing with himself joined by bassist Janisch and drummer Johnathan Blake while 2011’s Maybe Steps had the saxophonist-bandleader playing alongside pianist Gerald Clayton, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist and former Berklee classmate Peter Slavov and drummer Scott. For Infinite Blue, his second album on Whirlwind Recordings, Cornelius recruited a stellar crew of colleagues Michael Rodriguez on trumpet and Nick Vayenas on trombone along with Janisch on bass and two respected veterans in pianist Frank Kimbrough (Maria Schneider Orchestra, Jazz Composers Collective, The Herbie Nichols Project) and drummer Jeff Ballard (Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joshua Redman, Fly). “For all my previous albums, I have enlisted the help of sidemen who are of my generation, guys that I’ve come up with,” says Cornelius. “But on Infinite Blue I wanted to benefit from the experience of Frank Kimbrough and Jeff Ballard. It was an important priority for me to be able to have some people my own age alongside some more established, experienced folks who I have grown up listening to.”
Kimbrough brings his crystalline touch to bear on delicate numbers like the relaxed title track, the sublime “In the Quiet Moments” and the evocative “Waiting,” all underscored by Ballard’s uncannily sensitive drummer. But when it comes time to swing, as on the surging “My Green Tara” (a commission from New York’s Rubin Museum of Art), the frantic “Puzzler” or the aggressive “Regret Street,” they’re all on board for some uptempo burning, with Cornelius’ bold alto sax leading the way. “I would say that as an alto sax player I am influenced in equal parts by Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Hodges and Paul Desmond, with a sprinkling of Dick Oatts,” says Cornelius. But when it’s time to swing hard, that’s when Cannonball comes out.”
Elsewhere on Infinite Blue, Cornelius and longtime colleague Vayenas rekindle their chemistry on the lightly swinging “Unfinished Business” and pianist John Chin fuels the tasty bossa nova flavored closer “Projection.” “What’s important to me as a composer,” says Cornelius, “is that I’m always looking for a strong, tuneful melody. On a lot of great music that I’ve loved over the years in the jazz lexicon, like some of the ‘60s Blue Note recordings, for example, the tune itself is kind of an afterthought, just a vehicle to get to the blowing over the changes. And it’s been a great part of my musical history. But for my own writing I wanted to take the opposite approach and have improvisation being an aid to the tune. So it has been important to me up until this point to write songs that I end up walking around whistling. And I think that’s been a thread running through all of my recordings. Some of the seeds started to germinate on Lucid Dream and I’ve been dealing with the same palette over the years. But I’m stretching it as far as I could probably stretch it with Infinite Blue.”
Having been awarded a 2012 New Jazz Works Commission by Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Foundation, Cornelius is currently at work on composing a suite of tunes for octet inspired by A.A. Milne’s of classic poetry for children. Says the three-time winner of the ASCAP Young Composer Award (2005, 2006 and 2007), “Being a father has definitely mellowed a lot of the more aggressive tendencies in my personality, which definitely comes out in the music. And it’s heightened the more sentimental aspects. Two of the songs from Maybe Steps were written directly about my newborn daughter. And this CMA commission is being written with my son James and daughter Isabella in mind. So it absolutely has influenced the way I hear music and what kind of music I want to write.” This new project, titled “While You Are Still Young,” will debut this December 2013 at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and New York’s Jazz Gallery, performed by an all-star octet, featuring pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Peter Slavov, drummer Kendrick Scott, trumpeter Jason Palmer, tenor saxophonist John Ellis, trombonist Nick Vayenas, guitarist Miles Okazaki, and Cornelius himself on alto saxophone.
Until that next ambitious project comes to fruition, you can sample Cornelius’ hard bop tendencies and sublime ballad writing on Infinite Blue, now available worldwide on Whirlwind Recordings.