Artist Blog

Patrick Cornelius: Writing My Way Out of a Small-Group Rut by Thinking Big

Hello. My name’s Patrick. I Moved to New York City in January 2001, and have been eking out a life as a saxophonist, bandleader, and teacher. 6 albums into my “artistic” career as a saxer/songwriter, I started to get dinged with variations of the same critique from journalists over and over again. John Fordham from The Guardian put it plainly in a review of my 2013 album ‘Infinite Blue’:

“you sometimes have to pay attention to ensure you haven’t heard the same thing somewhere before”

Ouch. In other words, to many ears (including my own, after a hefty dose of soul searching and a few whisky sours), I had been making the same album over and over again with subtle variations in melody and personnel.

Ok, observation noted and corroborated. But is it a problem? What if I’m truly hearing music this way in my head and writing the same kind of music (clever and melodic permutations of American songbook forms) over and over again is the truest expression of my artistry? Nah, that’s not it. This middle-aged dog is happiest when he’s learning new tricks. I decided to take a break from thinking like a front-line virtuoso who writes tunes primarily as vehicles for improvisation and decided to pretend I was an actual bona fide “Jazz Composer.” Obviously, the thing to do was immediately add more instruments to my band. That’s what real composers do, isn’t it? I spent the next 5 years writing exclusively for octet (4 horns, 4 rhythm). It was fun for a while. We even had a lovely residency at The Cornelia Street Cafe (may it rest in peace), where I learned a lot, had great fun, and lost a lot of money. But eventually, I yearned for more. More what? Well, more instruments, obviously! Octet writing was like a gateway drug to the real hard stuff: big band.

There was only one problem with my newfound artistic focus on writing for large ensemble: no one was knocking down my door to help me tour and record with a big band. I have a drawer filled with charts, most of which have never been performed publicly. On the other hand, there were people interested in helping me continue to create music for small groups. But…how could I go back to “head – solo – solo – head – drum solo over the vamp” after all that I had learned writing for bigger contexts? Well, you know what they say: “You can take the composer out of the large ensemble, but you can’t take the large ensemble out of the composer.” I resolved to write big band charts for jazz quartet and quintet. Or more accurately, apply some of the orchestrational savvy that I gleaned during my years obsessing over octets and big bands to a one-horn band. The two albums I released since then, ‘Way of the Cairns’ (2020 Whirlwind Recordings) and ‘Book of Secrets’ (2023 Posi-Tone Records) were written and produced with this mindset. Here is a short look into the thought process I put into writing a few of their tracks.


Way of the Cairns

The compositions on ‘Way of the Cairns’ were inspired by vistas and experiences in Maine’s Acadia National Park. The title track is a through-composed sectional composition held together by 3 rhythmic motifs and loose fidelity to a melodic pitch sequence consisting of a dominant 7th arpeggio with added 4th. When I wrote this piece, I was consciously thinking about writing a big band chart, only shrunkified. And also hiking up a seaside mountain. Or something.

One key process element to sitting at the piano and banging out sections was to identify how many “instruments” I could concoct within the quartet, and figure out how I would pair them up in the various sections. I was hearing the melody as a call-and-response between the different instrument groups.

The form of the chart flows roughly from the “Head” to a Bass solo over the “Head” form (each phrase bookended by interjections from the other 3 instruments), to a “shout chorus.” After a brief interlude that is meant to evoke a mad scramble up to the summit of a mountain, a plateau of understated group improvisation fades into an open trading vamp between the Piano and Alto, which is eventually brought to a halt by a statement of a key motif played tutti in unison. A reprise of the Head’s B section follows at a slower tempo (as if conducted) leading to a coda that accelerates in both tempo and tonality into a punctuated ending.

I can add that performing this composition live for the first few times required quite a bit of concentration. We never did get it 100% right until the 4th night of our first tour!


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Legend Has It

The premise of ‘Book of Secrets’ is a narrative fantasy adventure story told (well, more loosely suggested) through instrumental compositions. Think…The Hobbit, Treasure Island, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Indiana Jones, Goonies, etc. I never actually wrote out the story that I was trying to tell because it didn’t really matter. The music was going to suggest something different to each listener’s imagination.

“Legend Has It” appears near the beginning of the ‘Book of Secrets’ narrative. Our protagonist hears a legend and is moved to seek it out (like when Mikey tells his friends the legend of One-Eyed Willy in ‘The Goonies’ – which may or may not have been the literal inspiration for this particular composition). Mystery is a large emotional component of this tune’s overall vibe, so I approached its orchestration and harmony accordingly.

Since this part of the story was meant to represent the origin of the adventure, it seemed fitting and natural that the form should be some kind of blues. But in order to establish an air of mystery, I started with an ostinato bass line played by the Bass and the Piano LH which undergirds the first half of the tune (let’s say…the “call and response” phrases). I layered Major Sus2 triads played by the vibes (with motor vibrato, of course) with a static rhythm on top of that to achieve an uneasy Hitchcockian ambiguity. The entrance of the melody, played by a flat-toned vibrato-less soprano sax doubled with the Piano RH, completes the effect. I remember reading an interview with Branford Marsalis when his album “Eternal” released, in which he cops to playing the melody and solo of the song “Reika’s Loss” on soprano without vibrato because it leaves off something expected, creating an unsettled, anxious feeling. Yeah, I totally stole that idea. But if you’re going to play soprano sax on an album, who better to steal inspiration from?

Setting the time signature at 5/4 was another decision meant to add a slight hitch in the getalong of listener relaxation. I realize that contemporary jazz musicians feel 5/4 as intuitively as 4/4, but most casual listeners still expect to hear that missing 6th beat, when they can put their finger on it.

Remember when I said that the form was a blues? Well, the phrases are doubled in value, so instead of 4 bars and 4 bars and 4 bars, it’s 8, 8, and 8. The “answer phrase” is also 8 bars long, but it acts almost like a bridge, in that it presents several contrasts in orchestration, harmony, and melodic contour. I release the tension of the ostinato bass line into walking time. Instead of doubling the bass line in the Left and melody in the Right, the piano takes comping duties over from the vibes, which is now free to double the Soprano melody. The ambiguous sus2 triads from the first 16 bars give way to functional harmony, and the melody phrases are longer and use notes of longer durations.

The piano solo begins with a big hit on beat two of the first measure, exactly where I envisioned a big fat brass sendoff hit in my imaginary jazz orchestra. The pianist solos with the right hand only (at my request), keeping the texture sparse so the “characters” can have distinct personalities.

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Lady of the Clouds

“Lady of the Clouds” comes at the midpoint of the program, when our hero seeks out a sage figure for wisdom and advice. The process of writing this piece runs an interesting parallel. I bought a copy of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Clouds’ on vinyl while I was working on this music. There is a dark and beautiful song on that album titled “Roses Blue” that tells a haunting story about a bewitched fortune teller over a chord progression of rapidly shifting key centers. I wanted to recreate some of the unease and mystery of Joni’s song, but at a much slower pace and with more reverence (and less dread) towards the subject. So, in a manner of speaking, my own “Lady of the Clouds” was Joni herself.

I wanted this composition to have a sparse texture at all times. Rather than recreating a big band in the orchestration, I thought more of a quartet or small chamber ensemble. Even though I wasn’t exactly shrinkifying my process, I was still trying to look for ways to arrange the melody that were outside of my prior small group comfort zone. My original idea was to play the melody on alto flute, doubled with the Piano RH. It wasn’t until we got to the studio and had to start with this piece right away without the time to properly warm up my flute embouchure that producer Marc Free and I stumbled into the realization that clarinet would give this particular melody the mournful character it really needed. I limited the pianist to playing only the simple accompaniment that I wrote (like a grade 2 ABRSM piano piece) and doubling the clarinet melody (performed without much interpretation) with the right hand.

The bass joins shortly before the second half of the melody, playing only roots on the downbeat of one in each measure. When the clarinet solo begins (again improvised very sparsely), I allow the pianist a little more latitude to comp sensitively, though truly the only instrumentalist who is allowed to improvise throughout the piece is the drummer.

Several of the phrases in the form of the tune have an odd number of bars. The melody felt natural in a series of 4 bar phrases, so I added an extra bar at the end of several of them in order to lend a touch of unease and anticipation. I feel this small decision was integral to creating the tune’s overall atmosphere. The coda of the composition hangs onto its ambiguity until the very end, revealing an isolated major 3rd to the final chord. It almost sounds like a Picardy third to my ear, except that a minor third is never referenced in the context of the final D tonality. But the majority of the piece shifts through darker minor and minor-presenting tonalities, so the feeling of minor stays with the listener, nonetheless.

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The Glory

“The Glory” represents an archetypal end goal: the treasure, destination, goal, or achievement. “Fortune and Glory” in the parlance of Indiana Jones movies (I may have lifted the title from that very phrase). But like the ultimate quest items in Indy’s adventures, obtaining the object itself does not end the story, nor does it bring the aforementioned “fortune and glory.” At least, not in the material sense that we typically understand. Either the reality doesn’t measure up to the idealized expectation, or the sense of joy is fleeting, giving way to either unforeseen complications or, often enough, the “next big thing” that we feel compelled to immediately start working towards.

When we want something, and have worked towards it over a period of time and effort, there is an internal voice propelling us onward, keeping us motivated. That’s represented by the repeating note rhythmic figure that permeates the composition relentlessly. The song sort of hits you over the head with this motif. It’s unsophisticated and unsubtle by intention. If I had written “The Glory” for big band initially (spoiler alert: I did eventually explode it), then I would have had some pretty cool options for passing it around the ensemble (spoiler alert: there were). In this original quintet version, the tag team consists of various individuals and pairs.

The actual main melody consists of an entirely different rhythmic motif, one that it hews to pretty faithfully throughout part A and part B, transformed only slightly at the end of the A section and then again expanded during the end of the B. The ensemble never sounds any actual chords until the final cadence of the A section. Instead, tonality is suggested through the counterpoint between melody and ostinato.

The solo form begins with an open Lydian vamp, which is meant to evoke the feelings of joy and resolve, when our protagonist finally achieves the goal. The B section presents darker harmonies, signifying that the story of human desire hasn’t ended happily ever after. I felt that breaking up the second time through the blowing section into an organic duet between the vibes and piano would add some contrast to the tried-and-true round robin solo-palooza that we usually expect from most jazz performances. I like to think that taking any opportunity to add a small element of surprise, or at least something mildly unexpected, can make the listening experience just a little bit more memorable. The piece ends with a loose approximation of a bookend coda, reiterating that the little voice never goes away, even if the original goal does.


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Having said all of this

I’m a big believer in balance. If you do one sort of thing a little too much (no matter how clever, unexpected, or refreshing), it wears out its welcome. When I wrote the music for ‘Way of the Cairns’ and ‘Book of Secrets,’ I never wanted to give listeners an opportunity to think “well, this was nice for a bit, but now I’ve had enough.” My point in trying to apply large ensemble and extended composition mindsets to smaller groups and smaller pieces wasn’t to eschew the traditional forms and elements that are vital components of the jazz language and aesthetic. It was to broaden the palette of experiences I could present my listeners with. And by the way, even the most virtuosic music readers breathe a sigh of relief when you hand them an F blues after a full day of intricate forms filled with tricky written figures (say that 3 times fast!)

Well, I think I’ve said just about enough. Too much, maybe. Thanks for indulging me with this opportunity to wax on about my creative thought process. Happy Writing!




About the Author:

Over the course of 23 years in New York, saxophonist Patrick Cornelius has cultivated a substantial body of work as a bandleader, saxophonist, and composer, performing original music in some of the world’s top jazz venues. Hailed as “self-assured” and “resourceful” by The New York Times, “Elegant” and “Extraordinary” by DownBeat, “assertive and accomplished” by JazzWise, and “Bold and Gifted,” by All About Jazz, Cornelius has released ten albums as leader or co-leader, featuring established artists such as Gerald Clayton, Jeff Ballard, Frank Kimbrough, Johnathan Blake, Kendrick Scott, Ben Allison, and Aaron Parks.

Cornelius’ compositional prowess has earned him four consecutive ASCAP “Young Composer Awards” as a young man, and two Chamber Music America “New Jazz Works” commissions in 2012 (premiered live on NPR’s Jazz Set) and 2023. Cornelius’ 2020 album, Acadia: Way of the Cairns (inspired by Acadia National Park) was praised as one of the best albums of 2020 by BBC Music Magazine, and “thoughtful and ambitious” by JazzTimesBook of Secrets, his latest release on Posi-Tone Records, is a programmatic concept album that tells a narrative story of adventure and self-discovery.

An active pedagogue, Patrick (who attended Berklee College of Music, The Manhattan School of Music, and Juilliard on scholarship), has appeared as a visiting clinician at institutions such as Berklee, Juilliard, The Royal Academy of Music, Birmingham Conservatoire, St. Mary’s University (Texas), The University of North Carolina, University of Texas, and University of Wisconsin. He currently serves on the music department faculty at The United Nations International School in New York City, where he works with talented young people from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures.


Photo Credit: Artist Photo by Vincent Soyez; Header Photo by Anna Yatskevich