Patrick Cornelius is in the jazz game for the long haul, making music for the cognoscenti. From the title of his third and thus-far best disc (at once a pun on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, a tribute to his infant daughter’s early ambulation, and a sage commentary on his frequently restrained, artfully unpredictable phrasing on alto sax) to the way his nine originals and two unorthodox covers engage his redoubtable ensemble of still-rising stars, Cornelius manages to operate in the modern mainstream while avoiding cliché, honing a subtle but distinctive style.
The core quartet includes pianist Gerald Clayton, drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Peter Slavov, players who have drawn notice while working with the likes of Roy Hargrove, Terence Blanchard and Joe Lovano. It’s striking how consistently and how well they channel their abundant talent into not only the pulse and dynamic but also the mood of these tunes. Clayton in particular ignores the ego-inflating buzz being generated about his current prowess and folds himself into the surge-and-recede happy uncertainty of “Christmas Gift,” the sober fragility of “Brother Gabriel,” the lilting, carefree bluesy-ness of “A Day Like Any Other” and the fragrant romance of “Le Rendez-vous Final” with a steadfast empathy that seems to expand rather than limit his vocabulary.
Cornelius’s compositions help engender this ensemble loyalty. They’re generally melodic, but too restless to be “catchy,” eager for tributaries and alleys, and the joys and truths found at loose ends, yet at the same time cautious to avoid ostentation. The leader’s alto work likewise eschews the sort of grand statements and blitzkrieg tempi that can come with the inferiority complex of the smaller horn, preferring to swing and coast and groove while gently switching gears in a manner similar to the way animals use vines and branches to traverse the upper canopy in a jungle.
The two covers include a stately, formal duet between Cornelius and guest pianist Assen Doykin on Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” and a rapid-fire rendition of “Conception” by George Shearing that is the most vigorous workout on Maybe Steps. While both are well done, the Cornelius originals almost invariably evince more curiosity.