COLUMN: Paul Cornish finds freedom in jazz

Elizabeth Gu | Daily Trojan

As the youngest sibling in a family of musicians, Paul Cornish had big shoes to fill when he began playing piano at age five. It was slow going at first, but Cornish credits his current drive for music to a host of mentors who encouraged him at a young age.

“I really hated piano at first,” Cornish said. “I just wanted to play drums.”

Cornish, now a junior majoring in jazz studies, is one of the most zealous musicians in our department. I couldn’t believe there was a time when Cornish needed encouragement — let alone coercion — to practice. But Cornish maintained that it took until middle school for him to take ownership of his identity as a musician.

“It was when I found out what jazz was that I really became interested in the possibilities of music and the piano,” he said. “I was doing classical piano all the way up until seventh grade.”

Then, his friend, who was the pianist in the middle school jazz band, left. Cornish found himself filling in the empty spot. 

Cornish had to quickly adjust to jazz’s unique challenges. He signed up for a five-week summer jazz camp in Houston to catch up with the other musicians in his school’s band. There, he had what he called a life-changing musical experience: A friend played him a record by contemporary jazz pianist Robert Glasper. The sound of that record set humming Cornish’s deepest convictions about the meaning of freedom.

“I’ve always been interested in choice and in why things are the way they are,” Cornish said. “I’ve always been interested in artists that live differently — on purpose.”

Before hearing Glasper, Cornish hadn’t felt such a sense of individuality in music. Indeed, that hour unsettled many of the assumptions that had kept him away from jazz before.

“I had heard jazz before, and it was traditional: It was the stock jazz style, which I grew to love later on,” Cornish said. “But Robert Glasper — to me he was breaking down barriers. He was choosing to do stuff differently, in terms of how he soloed and the forms of his songs.”

Cornish told me he still draws his musical philosophy from Glasper eight years later. For Cornish, good music must both embody and engender freedom.

“I want people to feel like they can do anything,” Cornish said. “I hope, through how I play and how I interact with my band, that it has some factor of that, like, ‘Man, that was different’ … I want people to get angry because it was different and they didn’t like it, just because it went in a different direction.”

And he meant it. Cornish has always impressed me with his daredevil musical decisions and how eagerly he receives criticism.

“Is this fearlessness a choice or a response to an urge? What is the psychological sensation?” I asked.

“I always want to try to take the music somewhere else, and maybe push the people I’m playing with to get out of cliches or going on autopilot,” he said. “I want to try and encourage everyone to be open, or to take this music somewhere else than where we automatically think it should go.”

Cornish recently launched his own trio, and he said it has given him the opportunity to explore these psychological dimensions of music, whereas before he was focused on perfecting his technique.

He started his trio after receiving encouragement from Glasper, his idol.

“I saw [Glasper] when he was in town, and he asked, ‘Do you have a trio going?’ … In school, we get caught up in the classroom aspect of it, but there’s another side to performing, and that takes shedding [practicing] of its own,” Cornish said.

Taking Glasper’s advice to heart, Cornish’s trio now plays monthly shows at Nature’s Brew, honing their ability to interact with each other and an audience that may be new to jazz.

“Does it feel good?” I asked.

“Definitely, especially when you’ve been writing music — you always dream of the day that you can premiere it and people respond to it,” Cornish said. “To play with other musicians that are on the same wavelength, in terms of your thoughts about music, and who are willing to try things — yeah, it’s a beautiful thing. And I can’t ask for anything more.”

Max Kapur is a junior majoring in jazz studies and East Asian languages and culture. His column,  “Ears to Hear,” runs every other Thursday.