This Thursday, June 2nd, The Jazz Gallery kicks off the next round of our Mentorship Series with guitarist Miles Okazaki working with pianist Paul Cornish. While some of our previous mentees had played on the Gallery stage previously, Cornish is a new member of the extended Gallery family. Cornish hails from Houston, Texas and attended the prestigious High School for the Performing and Visual Arts there (like fellow pianists Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, and Helen Sung). He just finished his second year studying jazz at the University of Southern California and has already been decorated with awards from ASCAP, Yamaha, and the Next Generation Jazz Festival. The tracks on Cornish’s SoundCloud page show an immense talent, poised to break out to a wider audience.
Before Cornish arrives in New York to make his Gallery debut, we caught up with Miles Okazaki to talk about his project with Paul and what he’s learned about band-leading from working with Steve Coleman.
The Jazz Gallery: How did you and Paul meet?
Miles Okazaki: Not many people know Paul because he’s never been to New York. Well maybe he’s passed through, but he’s never really checked out New York. This will be an interesting experience for him because of that, and because the music that we’re doing isn’t the most conventional.
I was teaching at the Banff Institute in Canada last summer, and Paul was in my ensemble. He was obviously very advanced, very talented. He was always hanging out, playing at the jam sessions. But he’s also a little shy, so I don’t know him that well on a personal level, I just know how he plays. I’ve been trying to imagine what it would have been like to be 19 or 20 and come to New York and play with some older musicians or more experienced musicians and just have that kind of mind-blown thing. What we’re doing is providing a framework for Paul to live in New York for a month, so he can go out and explore and get on the scene a little bit.
I feel like this kind of situation is more authentic and less theoretical than just working in a classroom setting. Like, do you want to have a doctor who’s studied all the books and knows everything, or someone who has done ten thousand hours of surgery and never cracked open a book? Not that this is one way or the other, but this is just a jumpstart on some playing experience.
TJG: It’s almost as if Paul is a sort of jazz exchange student and you are part of his host family.
MO: Yeah. It is true that he’s coming here without really knowing anyone else.
TJG: Earlier you mentioned that the music that you’ll be working on with Paul isn’t the most conventional. How so?
MO: We’re going to be playing music from a record that I recorded recently that isn’t out yet, with Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums. It’s a new book of material that I’m trying out and before this, the only person who’s played it is Craig Taborn. I gave Paul the tapes and said, “Just check out Craig Taborn.” I think that will be a good lesson by itself! Paul’s just going to jump right into the fire with us, but it’s a supportive project. Sometimes people can have bad experiences when they just jump into situations, when the other band members can be like, “Hey man. Just get it together!” That can be a good thing too, but we’re not going to be trying to do that here. It’s more like we’re just on a gig and trying to make all this music happen together.