Portraits in Jazz: Alvin Cornista’s different worlds

Portraits in Jazz: Alvin Cornista’s different worlds
Tenor saxophonist Alvin Cornista —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

(Third of a series)

Most everything can be turned into a story if one knows how. Or a song, if we ask tenor saxophonist Alvin Cornista, whose soon-to-be-released part 1 (simply called Manila) of a double album (part 2, titled 7,000 Islands, drops next year) that contains 15 tunes written over a 2-week stretch in 2012 when he’d just moved into the 20th floor of a condominium building that looked out on the Pasig River. 

And he knew how, it seemed: To set up for some creative work Alvin arranged himself by the window with a keyboard, a pencil, and a telescope. “I wrote at different times of the day, completing every period in a 24-hour cycle, and captured the moods each moment gave,” he says, as if surveillance were the most normal thing in the world. 

Alvin says he’d glimpsed night-and-day rush hour, meal times, weddings, funerals, fireworks, crime, intimacies—and, in short order, the mundane, the macabre, and the magical were all transformed into songs with titles like “Beyond the Rizal Sky,” “The Seducer,” and “Remedios Circle.” 

“I was fortunate to have had this time, which unintentionally became a time capsule,” he says. “That is when the music is the best, when you don’t even expect any of it to happen. And for those two amazing weeks it kept on happening. I’m so thrilled that, finally, this music will be out.”

The 12-year wait for his songs to be released into the world via Warner Records does not bother Alvin, whose capacity for wonder is matched only by his expansive energy on stage and off. Since the day he returned to the country after attending college in Vancouver and then graduating from the University of North Texas (UNT)—where, he says, he had the privilege to play with the Grammy Award-winning Two O’Clock Lab Band, the second-highest level of nine big bands of the Jazz Studies Division at the UNT College of Music—he jumped right in and became one of the busiest musicians in town.

More in store

Back home, Alvin cut his teeth with the greats. He first went to the Wednesday-night jazz at a bar to jam, and was offered a full-time position there that lasted for four years until he got his own 5-star-hotel Wednesday gig. Meanwhile, the late legendary pianist Romy Posadas had also given him the position of sax player in his band, as well as in the late singer Arthur Manuntag’s band. The late unparalleled bassist Roger Herrera then brought him into a TV network as featured soloist for anything jazz-related.

Alvin eventually collaborated with younger jazz musicians coming into their own, until he started getting requests to feature his own band. When he recorded some of his originals in the early 2010s, he had assembled a jazz dream team—multi-instrumentalist Bo Razón, guitarist Chuck Stevens, pianist Tim Lyddon, and drummer Abe Lagrimas Jr., who were all then spending time in the country. Other tracks, released over time, feature the Despidida Quartet comprising himself, keyboardist Mel Santos, bassist Dave Harder, and drummer Rey Vinoya. 

“Today, released music basically functions like a calling card, a prerequisite for being ‘official’ and verified as an artist,” says Alvin. “It’s a different world. I’m just happy to have my body of work out there.”

He adds that he has a surprisingly large catalog of unreleased music. “The past two decades have seen a lot of compositions, recordings—a compilation of works that I never made an effort to publish,” he says. And because the music channels were in a bit of a blur at the point where the industry was transitioning, he would often finish projects then shelve them. The upside of this backlog is a gift that would keep on giving for quite a while: “There will be a steady flow of releases coming out over the next years,” he says. 

Mellow days

Alvin Cornista
Cornista: “The music is the best when you don’t even expect any of it to happen.”

With his most hectic years gigging (2007–2013) behind him, Alvin considers himself “20% performing artist and 80% audio engineer and composer for film and TV, who writes songs, records, and masters for all genres.” In the summer of 2022, he and his young family moved to Toronto, so when good winds—mainly unfinished projects that he must tend to—blow him into town, he limits his performances to a maximum of two per week because he stays in his studio in Laguna.

These are must-watch shows for audiences that miss Alvin’s long, full-fat sound flecked with melodic flourishes and fluent in bebop language while holding out the lush tone for ballads — and his contagious sense of joy.

This must have been the kind of thrill he felt when he was 10 and unpacking his late grandfather’s saxophone. The year before Alvin was born his grandfather, a professional saxophonist, passed on, and as a young boy, he was always told that he had all his grandfather’s mannerisms. As he handled the gold-plated special edition 1931 Conn sax, which the family had decided he must inherit, the instrument was already speaking to him, he says, almost telling him what to do. 

“Blowing my very first note, I closed my eyes and was immediately transported to a different dimension… As if I had returned to a familiar and happy place,” he recalls.  

Alvin insists something happened to him that day. And while words to describe exactly what it was continue to elude him, he volunteers an anecdote from when he was in his 20s and he was playing “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” on the same saxophone in his grandmother’s backyard. She emerged from the guest house in tears, begging him to stop—something she had never done before. Overwhelmed and confused, he put the instrument down. “Your grandfather used to play that song, and I don’t know why, but it’s making me so sad right now,” his grandmother explained. He says he has never stopped wondering whether he’d played the song in the exact same key his grandfather did—or if that had been his grandfather playing through him. 

That is, of course, a story for another time. Happily for Alvin, these days he gets to play with some of the best jazz musicians in Toronto. In June he’ll perform at the Toronto Jazz Festival in a band called “Tenor Madness” with Canada’s sax corps d’elite Mike Murley, Alex Dean, and Pat LaBarbera.


Alvin also finds himself tooling around with artificial intelligence (AI) in support of movie scores. “When… the focal point is the scene and the music is solely to support, AI is great for helping me shape the tone quickly without having to spend too much time,” says Alvin. “When focused on characters’ dialogue and sound effects, you’d hardly notice the AI-generated bits…. It’s not quite there for music for listening, though.” 

He adds that while he’s somewhat disturbed by its use in hotels and retail, AI is here to stay, and creatives will have to learn how to work with it, maybe even get the edge on it.
Until then, there will for sure be The Doctor (in “Doctor Who”) reminding Alvin: “There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice and somewhere else the tea is getting cold. Come on, Alvin, we’ve got work to do.”

Read more: All that Jazz: The music lives here

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