Over the course of his four albums as a leader, alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius has staked a claim to his own brand of post-bop, one that is both light on its feet and unabashedly tuneful. His quicksilver tone cuts through even the densest clatter of a Kendrick Scott or Jeff Ballard, and Cornelius navigates treacherous harmonies as if on a pleasure cruise.
However, his newest project has led him into new, uncharted waters. As the recipient of a 2012 New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Foundation, Cornelius composed a suite of music called While You Are Still Young, inspired by the beloved children’s poetry of A.A. Milne (Cornelius is a young father of two, and the title references Milne’s When We Were Very Young, a 1924 collection). We caught up with Cornelius by phone this week to talk about the inspiration behind his new work.
The Jazz Gallery: Your new project is inspired by the children’s poetry of A.A. Milne, specifically his collection When We Were Very Young. What was your experience with this work growing up?
Patrick Cornelius: When my daughter was born—she was my first child—my grandmother gave me the book [When We Were Very Young] as a gift, because she read those poems to my mother when my mother was a baby, and my mother read them to me. It was a family tradition, as I’m sure it is for many families, to read these particular poems. I don’t remember my mother reading them to me, but when my daughter was born we read them a lot, and I still read them to her every once in a while—she’s about four years old now.
There’s something about them that appealed to me. They’re so whimsical and carefree in nature and their characters are very strong. I always thought they’d lend themselves well to not a musical treatment, because I’m not setting the poems. I always thought I could write some interesting stuff inspired by them.
TJG: If these aren’t actual settings, how did you go about translating their sense of character and whimsy into your piece?
PC: The way I write most of my music—and I want to stress that I don’t consider myself a composer so much as a tune-writer—but the way I mostly approach writing is that there’s something external that appeals to me in some way and gives me an idea for a melody. So in that way, you can say that my writing is always impressionistic, as opposed to having an idea inside myself first that I want to flesh out.
For example, there’s one poem I did called “The Invaders” that describes a very pastoral meadow and all of a sudden, this herd of cows comes walking through. I just thought of that as a photograph, with these cows hoofing slowly and lazily and happily through this meadow. The melody that I came up with is rather lazy and bulky.
When you think about certain signatures, certain colors, different harmonies present themselves naturally. For pastoral, I’m thinking about major tonalities and diatonic melodies. The more I deal with the different poems with different characters, different feelings associated with them, through the natural course of having listened to so much music in my life, different harmonies and melodies suggest themselves.
TJG: In this project, it seems that you’re approaching the material very metaphorically, as if the music is metaphor for the text. Is this metaphorical kind of thinking something you’ve done a lot of, or was this a new process for this project?
PC: This is definitely how I generally approach writing. There’s almost always some sort of static image that I’m trying to capture the spirit of, rather than writing something that’s overtly programmatic. It has developed recently in a way that when I write a piece, I am more interested now in all of the inner pieces having a very explicit relationship to exactly what it is that I’m trying to describe, so there’s much less that’s superfluous to the composition. That was really challenging for this project because I’m writing for a larger instrumentation than what I have ever done in a professional artistic context.
Because of that, when I was assembling the ensemble, it was important for me to get musicians that I knew very well, and those I admire greatly. It helped because I knew precisely who I was writing for.
TJG: Did working with these very transparent children’s poems inspire this desire to strip things down to their most essential elements?
PC: I was definitely working with this idea for a while, but I found that this was a good compositional project that lent itself well to this pursuit.
TJG: Working with these poems certainly affected your writing process. Now as you present these pieces, do you see them as a work of art primarily for adults as a means of commenting on childhood—say, something like Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom—or a piece of art that works on multiple levels, speaking to children and adults alike— say, like a Pixar film.
PC: It’s definitely not children’s music, although I feel like it could be accessible. Primarily, I wanted to create art that was at the level and caliber and audience that I usually write for, just with a bit of a different subject matter. I don’t even know how much Milne’s poems are for children. He technically wrote them for his son, but also not. It’s kind of the same way of how I approached this piece. The level of craft in the poems is very high; it’s not dumbed down in any way as far as meter is concerned. It’s a very sophisticated work of literature. So I wasn’t trying to write a sort of “Kidz Bop” thing. It’s definitely for adults to reflect on this material, for people that might have known this work growing up and might be nostalgic about it. And it’s very much for my mother and grandmother as well because of our family history with the book.
The Jazz Gallery presents “While You Are Still Young,” a suite of music by Patrick Cornelius on Saturday, December 14th. The performance will feature Patrick Cornelius on alto saxophone, Jason Palmer on trumpet, John Ellis on tenor saxophone, Nick Vayenas on trombone, Miles Okazaki on guitar, Gerald Clayton on piano, Peter Slavov on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here. This concert is made possible with support by Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Foundation.