It certainly helps that Cornelius is backed by a first-rate rhythm section of Michael Janisch on bass and Jonathan Blake on drums, both of whom provide a solid sense of structure in what could be rather sparse musical space. At no time do Janisch or Blake lose their collaborative framework in creating a rich, creative context both for songs and solos. Janisch, in particular, has an assertive approach and often establishes the feel of the song, with Blake hanging back, a role reversal between bass and drums that works well.
Trained at Berklee College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music, Cornelius is as strong a writer as he is a player. All the compositions on Fierce are his, starting with the title track and album opener. Reminiscent from the top of Ornette Coleman's earliest tunes, "Fierce" quickly mixes tempos and phrasing, full of energy and never losing its sense of swing. If anything, this performance is about the chemistry between the alto-bass-drums trio that will carry the load for the whole album, and it's a performance that serves notice: We have fierce chops.
"Hopscotch," which follows, is a pleasant shuffle that features some excellent stop-and-start work from Janisch and Blake, whose snare pops with an authoritative funk in just the right spots to bring a smile to your face. The sweet and gentle "Maybe Steps" shows off Cornelius giving himself and his playing a bit more space to breathe, all the while staying firmly connected to a melodic line. It's the kind of tune a new father writes for his baby girl. Cornelius may be fierce at times, but here, he's very sweet. Tongue in cheek?
Lest we get too mellow, "Two Seventy Eight" begins with Janisch digging into a tough groove -- you can hear his strings rattling on the fretboard -- and Blake working his toms under a dizzy melody from Cornelius and valve trombonist Nick Vayenas, who, after the head, turns in a brisk solo that winds down into some excellent unaccompanied drum work. Tenor Mark Small joins Cornelius on the next track, "First Dance," a midtempo composition that has both horns moving through a slightly mismatched but nevertheless appealing duet at the top of the song, giving way to clear, well thought out solos from both reeds.
'The Incident," which also features Vayenas, is a restrained tune with a Latin feel that rises and falls, a remarkable exercise in intensity that one keeps waiting to cut loose, but never does -- not to the detriment of the song, fortunately. The slowest moving song, and perhaps the least successful tune, is "Home With You," which never seems to pick up much direction or offer chemistry -- although it may be that, in contrast to the rest of the album, its distinct lack of melody is disheartening. All this domestic digression is forgotten with the next track, the simple-but-charming "One Thing."
Cornelius closes the album with "New Blues," an extremely strong tune that boasts an outstanding opening duet passage between Janisch and Blake that fools your ears outright at times, then drops into a joyous series of falling and rising lines from Cornelius and Vayenas, whose solos are pushed to take chances and move fast by the energy of the rhythm section. It doesn't sound much like blues, if only in the sense that it lifts you up from feeling bad on the sheer personalities of the players. Janisch, who has been in the background or hunkered down in a groove for much of the album, gets the final solo of Fierce, and he makes the most of it. If anyone missed Janisch's 2009 Purpose Built, here's reason alone to go check it out.
In the excellence of his compositions, and in the skill of his playing and the playing of those around him, Patrick Cornelius has made a truly notable album. In the fact that he does this without the usual complement of a keyboard or guitar is all the more remarkable. With the just the right tunes and an uncanny sense of harmonic space, Cornelius has returned to a musical sound that one doesn't hear very often. It's all the more rare to hear it played so well.
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