Private Playlist: Pianist Paul Cornish unpacks 5 crucial records from boundary-stretching musicians

Paul Cornish. Photo by Elshaddai Mulugeta

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments.

Ask pianist Paul Cornish about his intentions for his music, and he'll say he wants to "improve the human condition one ear at a time." That statement's dual sense of ambition and earnestness feels like one way to understand his art. Still in his twenties, Cornish has already shared stages and studios with stratospheric talents like Herbie Hancock, John Legend, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, among many others. He sits on the faculty of the Stanford Jazz Workshop and occupies the piano bench for the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance. But Cornish’s way of speaking about jazz, and about music more broadly, shares spiritual qualities with his heroes like Robert Glasper and Jason Moran. And in performance, he proves himself to be a grounded, perceptive, and heart-stoppingly nimble musician. Put simply, Paul Cornish is one to watch.

For this edition of Private Playlist, Cornish unpacks a few of his most transcendent, challenging, and inspiring favorites, from Joni Mitchell to Jason Moran.

“Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ completely messed me up. I listened to [it] for a week straight.” — Paul Cornish


Jason Moran is amazing. I feel like he's able to combine avant-garde and creative music with a strong foundation in traditional and straight-ahead [jazz]. And he's very coherent in terms of how he presents these worlds in a way that's unique to him. He just put out a solo piano record that changes the way solo piano albums are made. And he's one of those artists I always look to to be like, "Okay, I have to keep putting in the work, because he's just outputting at a high level and always has." From the album "The Sound Will Tell You," he has a song called "Toni Morrison said Black is a Rainbow (Shadow)." [It's] unlike anything I've ever heard.


This album is underrated, and it's been overlooked for whatever reason, but I think it's one of the best modern jazz albums of this century. It's called "Conflict of a Man" by ERIMAJ, also known as Jamire Williams. He's another musician from Houston that went to my high school. And very much like Jason, I think he's really a deep thinker. He's invested in really going to those deep places. And I think he was really tapping into a message [with] "The Conflict of a Man." He's dealing with a lot of those ideas within the confines of that concept. The crazy thing is that I didn't really understand a lot of the subject matter until I got older.


A couple people you've had on [Private Playlist] have mentioned Geri Allen. I love that so much, because she really cannot be praised enough. And that goes for a lot of women, especially in jazz music. But Geri Allen's "Home Grown" changed my whole outlook on what I knew to be possible on piano from a technical standpoint. She does a lot of standards on "Home Grown," and that's part of the reason why it blew me away. [They were] tunes that I learned and knew, and she completely reinvented how to approach a lot of them. 

I think it's kinda [like] what I described with Jason, in terms of her ability to go seamlessly between the worlds of someone who's studied and knows the tradition and has played with the masters of this music. But she's also able to play avant-garde jazz or [in] the creative music scene and she's fully immersed in that world at the highest level. And she did it in a way that felt like it was part of her, bridging those two worlds together, and she's able to seamlessly go between [them]. Nothing about her technique holds her back from being able to play whatever she wants to play. And still the choices she makes [are] creative and exciting. You don't really know what she's playing next, but you're blown away by what she can do with her hands and the sound she gets.


Joni Mitchell is one of the GOATs of songwriting. I got into her literally a couple of years ago. "Both Sides Now" completely messed me up. I listened to [it] for a week straight. Not even really trying to, I just enjoyed it that much. I could not believe the depth of the lyrics, but I felt it was at that level musically as well. I feel like that's what she's [come] to be appreciated for. If I ever wanted to get into songwriting or writing lyrics, which I don't do at the moment, I would want a song to sound like this, or to create the feeling that "Both Sides Now" creates for me.


Laura Mvula is amazing. I heard her music in high school and the sound of it really impacted me. To me at the time [it] was really fresh. I didn't really hear anyone combining genres in that way. She can write pop-leaning stuff, but obviously with some complex harmony. And at least on a couple of her records, she has the orchestra behind it. And to me that embodies perfectly a lot of the things I value in music. I just love the choices she makes.

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