The title of alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius’ sixth album has both a poetic and a mysterious ring to it. The mystery part, at least, doesn’t pan out on Acadia: Way of the Cairns. The album’s conception is thoughtful, ambitious, and straight-ahead, played by Cornelius with pianist Kristjan Randalu, bassist Michael Janisch, and drummer Paul Wiltgen (four-fifths of the TransAtlantic Collective, Cornelius’ touring band in the late 2000s). Its overall tone is consistently joyful.
Not to say there isn’t a variety of moods on the album, which is inspired by Cornelius’ explorations of Acadia National Park in southern Maine. “Star Party” and “Seawall Sunrise” both project senses of awe, the former shot through with romance and the second with wonder. “On the Precipice” carries all the heightened tension of being in a precarious place; “Darkest Night” does suggest a certain quandary, but more of the nervous, where-am-I type than behold-the-mysteries-of-creation.
In each instance, however, an incandescent happiness shines through, as though the anxieties of the precipice or the darkness weren’t to be traded for all the world. Even the elegiac “Valse Hésitante” has a kind of irrepressibility, via the little extra shuffle Wiltgen puts into his brushwork behind Cornelius’ mournful melodies and the stateliness of Randalu and Janisch. Elsewhere, it’s the leader’s ever-bright alto sound that lifts Acadia’s spirits, from the intrepidity of opener “Way of the Cairns” to the nostalgia of closer “Ten Years Later.”
The music’s complexity is structural as well as emotional. For example, “Way of the Cairns” has four fully developed sections, while “Personal Beehives” is a headscratcher of a form in 7/4. That just adds to the triumph when Janisch (on “Cairns”), Randalu (“Beehives”), or Cornelius (both, and everywhere else too) let loose with solos that tear through these labyrinths as easy as you please.