Patrick Cornelius can find inspiration just about anywhere. Even on his feet.
“Regent Street,” the nimbly swinging opening tune on his latest album, takes its cues from a swank pair of shoes designed in a style found in that London shopping district. And the song’s streamlined form expresses his intent to fulfill a thematic conceit in a no-frills way.
“It was my first pair of really cool shoes and it made me feel confident to wear them. So I wanted the tune to have a feeling of swagger to it and an air of confidence,” he says on the phone, en route to a teaching engagement in Utah. “Everything I write — any note, any passage, any phrase or harmony — needs to be in aid of what that tune is supposed to be about. If I’m writing anything that’s superfluous, that’s just there because I have more composing chops than I used to, then it’s not appropriate to the tune.”
While making his way through the New York City jazz scene for the last dozen-plus years, the saxophonist has gotten attention for his songwriting. Winner of a prestigious award for young jazz composers three straight years starting in 2005, he’s authored four albums as a leader that are stacked with original compositions.
Now he’s set to debut what he calls his most ambitious project yet: a suite of six songs based on “When We Were Very Young,” A.A. Milne’s 1924 book of child-friendly poetry. The song cycle, written for an ensemble of eight, makes its world premiere at the Red Room at Cafe 939 on Wednesday. Part of a series featuring alumni from Berklee College of Music, the concert will be simulcast live on NPR’s website and on “The Checkout,” a syndicated jazz program produced by WBGO in New York. (Audio and video of the concert will be archived online.)
Cornelius, 35, says he’s been mulling the idea for the project since his newborn daughter received a gift of the book from her grandmother, almost four years ago. A commission last year from Chamber Music America made it feasible.
“These poems have an innocent kind of charm. It just struck me that I wish I could capture this sense of whimsy in musical form,” he explains. “It’s not children’s music, obviously. I was just using this feeling of wonder and innocence and playfulness that [the book] inspired.”
Playing off the original book’s title, he calls the work “While We’re Still Young.” Following a New York show a few days later, Cornelius will bring his octet into the studio to record the suite as his next album. With this project, he continues to make a point of including musicians of his own generation in his bands. The current group includes three fellow Berklee grads.
“He writes beautiful, melodic songs with a lot to his tunes. There’s a story behind everything he writes,” says trombone player Nick Vayenas, who has worked with Cornelius many times since their days as undergraduates together in Boston. “It’s gotten deeper over the years and now he’s a great arranger too, arranging for four horns. He always had it, but he’s developed a lot over the years, especially recently.”
Cornelius clearly sees value in advanced music education — he followed his Berklee tenure with a master’s degree from Manhattan School of Music and then an artist diploma from the Juilliard School. But though he says he’s stretching his abilities as a composer more than ever in recent years, it’s not by way of trying to stump his sidemen with overly complicated charts. “I think with a lot of jazz music I hear, especially written by younger composers — meaning under the age of 50 — the music tends to be so concerned with a road map, and trying to get from A to B and then there are mountains in-between,” he says.
Squarely in the stylistic mainstream of jazz, Cornelius’s work has a bright, clean feel to it. He’s less concerned with wowing the listener than providing a tune that can be whistled.
Cornelius describes his songs as impressionistic adaptations of snapshots in his head. Each song on “Infinite Blue,” released earlier this year, is rooted in a specific inspiration. “There’s something that I heard or saw or read that appealed to me, and I want to get at that feeling by writing a nice tune,” he says of his method. The dreamy down-tempo number “In the Quiet Moments” was inspired by his first attempt at meditating. “Waiting” aims to hit a spot of melancholy, and then just stay there.
But “While We’re Still Young” has compelled him to expand his abilities as a writer and bandleader, by writing for a larger ensemble than he’s written for before. Though there are more musical tools at his disposal, his ambition is still to communicate a feeling, simply.
“I’ve never really considered myself a composer-composer,” he says modestly. “I definitely am more of a tunesmith. I want to write a lovely tune that has a vibe and that conveys the aesthetic point I’m trying to get across.”
Whether that starting point is a sense of childlike whimsy or fancy footwear, Cornelius aims to translate it into music. And, just maybe, to make you whistle.