Acadia: Way of the Cairns
Maine’s Acadia National Park has always been a favorite of this writer’s having spent at least two vacations there while raising my family. So, naturally this latest work from alto saxophonist, composer, solo artist, and educator Patrick Cornelius is of interest. Normally one associates jazz with urban locales, street rhythms, and bustling nightlife so an album devoted to natural landscapes and the awe inspiring beauty of a unique place where mountains rise up directly out of the ocean is unusual and obviously intriguing. It’s a place where one can hike in the wilderness, bicycle the roads or carriage trails, wander along ocean rocks to investigate special habitats, or enjoy panoramic views from the mountains. Cornelius even named his new collective quartet Acadia, formerly known at The TransAtlantic Collective that performed close to 100 concerts in 8 different countries from 2006 to 2009. A decade later the foursome reunites for this effort Way of the Cairns.
This is not to suggest that Cornelius hasn’t been busy in the interim. Over the course of eighteen years living in New York City, has earned a substantial reputation as, and created an impressive body of work comprised of nine albums as a leader, featuring some of the finest musicians from the global jazz and improvised music scene. These original compositions are performed by Cornelius and bassist (and Whirlwind label boss) Michael Janisch along with Luxembourgish drummer Paul Wiltgen and virtuoso Estonian pianist Kristjan Randalu. They form a unit that combines the heat of New York’s jazz scene with the depth and subtlety of the European jazz tradition to create a set of recordings that are accessible and melodic, but as powerful and compelling as the landscapes that inspired them. This music is meant to be “visual,” in other words, close your eyes and transport yourself to this special place.
The opening “Way of the Cairns” describes the ascent of Great Head Mountain, through texture and tempo changes and a strong bass/sax unison melody. “Star Party” commemorates a beachside star-gazing session with a lyrical piano feature for Randalu. The insistent, subtly shifting groove and intricate melody of “Blueberry Mountain” evoke a sense of tumbling, childlike excitement, contrasting with the radiant, gently lilting calm of “Seawall Sunrise.” “Darkest Night” has a feature for Janisch’s powerful, clearly articulated bass, and “On The Precipice” features Wiltgen’s thrilling drum break, pieces designed to capture the excitement of travelling across the wilderness. “Valse Héstitante” was written by Randalu, with a crystalline precision that stems from the European classical tradition, spiced with some unpredictable metric shifts, while “Personal Beehives” is a very American piece of twisty swing after the tradition of Konitz and Tristano. The album closer, “Ten Years Later,” penned by Wiltgen, brings a stately, measured melody symbolizing the band’s journey toward reunion.
Cornelius as leader and principal writer, is the major voice, playing gorgeously and animatedly throughout, balancing excitement with reverie, brisk passages with reflective ones. However, he wrote the pieces with the sound of a collective in mind – “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.” Whether it’s the inspiration drawn from Cornelius’ favorite landscapes, or just the innate chemistry they had formed a decade ago, this well-knit unit delivers transportive picturesque art worthy of Acadia’s unique beauty.
- Jim Hynes