Artist Feature

Andy Milne
By Ken Waxman

“Working with other people from other places and other disciplines expands your own ability to be creative,” notes pianist/composer Andy Milne, the 46-year-old Canadian who has lived stateside since 1991. Without question he has spent the past few years proving this dictum.

Best-known for his six years in the ‘90s as keyboardist with alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s different bands, as well as leading his own Dapp Theory combo since 1998, Milne’s recent and upcoming projects include experiments with small group improvising and composed orchestral music; collaborations with a fellow pianist, two kotoists, actors and a comedian. Plus his associates hail from the US, France, Japan … and even outer space.

In NYC, Milne plays one of his infrequent trio gigs at Dizzy’s Club with bassist John Hébert and drummer Andrew Cyrille on August 26. Before that Dapp Theory will be at Shapeshifter Lab August 16, 17. The second night will add a horn section made up of trumpeter Ralph Alessi, trombonist Alan Ferber, plus saxophonists Michael Attias and Quinsin Nachoff to the band; the first night links Dapp with guitarist David Gilmore and comedian Regina eCicco.

Where is Pannonica, Milne’s well-received 2009 duo CD with French pianist Benoît Delbecq and subsequent tour, was the inspiration for another undertaking in 2014. Called Strings and Serpents, it’s a multi-disciplinary show, linking the pianists with Japanese koto players Tsugumi Yamamoto and Ai Kajigano, plus a 60-minute animated film. “Here are the two iconic pillars of Eastern and Western music yet they’ve both simpatico,” he enthuses. “What the piano can’t do, like bend notes, the koto can, and vice-versa”.

Milne, who states ruefully that “I’m my own development office,” is busy working out the logistics for these projects as well as the release of an already-recorded Dapp Theory CD –label to be decided. The reason for this multitude of disparate projects, he says, was the realization around 2005 that “if I have a creative idea I should act on it. In the past I felt if it didn’t fit with what I did at the time I shouldn’t do it.”

It was this openness to new ideas that got Milne to outer space and film scoring. The keyboardist, who over the years has backed the likes of singers Cassandra Wilson and Ranee Lee, has also worked with actor/singer Avery Brooks since 2006, sometimes even playing four-handed piano with the entertainer. Brooks is known for his 1993-1999 role as Captain Benjamin Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. At one point William Shatner was directing The Captains, a Star Trek-oriented feature consisting of interviews with the actors who commanded the mythical space ship over the years. “Shatner initially came to Avery and wanted him to do the music, but he said ‘you need Andy Milne’,” recalls the pianist.

The result was Milne flying to Los Angles to create the music for The Captains. “At this point I hadn’t even seen the complete film just a few scenes. But I put on the headphones watched the film and improvised music that I thought would fit with the scenes, frequently being forced to change gears in mid-thought as I couldn’t anticipate scene changes.” To make matters more confusing, parts of the film already had an ersatz music track, so Milne had to ignore those sounds while he played. Working around the clock, he created the score in 2½ days. The result so impressed Shatner and the production company that Milne has since done the music (“composed not improvised”, he`s quick to add), for six more Shatner-affiliated features. The Captains soundtrack also became a limited-edition CD, for sale at last year’s Las Vegas Star Trek Convention, where Milne and Brooks performed.

This desire to follow new paths extends to the show with comedian eCicco. “There used to be more of a link between jazz and comedy and this is a way to bring it back,” Milne states. Right now plans are for the comic to do her own material between musical sets and perhaps riff along with the group during the show, trying to extend some of the humor that appears on most bandstands.

Adding additional instruments to Dapp Theory on the other hand is part of Milne’s ongoing interest in larger form writing. In June for instance his composition “Elements of Surprise” was performed at Miller Theater by the 43-piece Jazz Composers Orchestra. “It was nerve-wracking with a different way of communicating and thinking without performing myself. But the experience presented me with new ideas”, he recalls. So too does the Dapp expansion. Part of a project he calls The Seasons of Being, it’s an attempt to find a holistic approach to analyse different musicians’ qualities in order to compose music geared to that player. Once he’s satisfied with the concept Milne hopes to record this configuration as well.

This interest in various streams of music has been with Milne for years. Brought up in Toronto, he graduated from that city’s York University with an honors degree in music; then a Canada Council grant allowed him to study at The Banff Centre. Besides meeting fellow student Delbecq there, it was instructor Coleman who was important to his growth. “He encouraged me to take the high road and showed me more that was possible.” Following a year playing in Montreal, Milne moved south.

“One thing I first noticed when I came to NYC was that the drummers weren’t the same. The standard of drumming was so high.” Cyrille was one of those NYC percussionists and the opportunity to play with him is one reason for Milne’s trio gig. “I spend most of my time in NYC playing with my peers and don’t have too many opportunities to play with cats of an older generation like Andrew,” he explains. The men know one another, since both teach at The New School – Milne also teaches at The School for Improvisational Music, and New York University – so when the Dizzy’s offer developed, he approached Cyrille. Eventually Milne would like to make his first trio CD as well. “Most people don’t realize that my background is that of a piano trio guy just because I don’t chose to play in that context,” he notes. “Even Dapp Theory isn’t an electric band per se. I play piano about 99% of the time, not synthesizer.”

Despite all these projects, it’s likely there won’t be a flood of Milne CDs any time soon. “It’s purely logistical, there’s so much content out there that it’s staggering,” he notes. “You don’t want to just cobble together a record to a make a document. It has to be coherent.”

Recommended Listening:

Andy Milne & Benoît Delbecq Where is Pannonica? (SongLines Recordings, 2009)

Dapp Theory Layers of Chance (Contrology Records/ObliqSound, 2008)

Andy Milne & Grégoire Maret Scenarios (ObliqSound, 2007)

Andy Milne Dreams and False Alarms (SongLines Recordings, 2007)

Dapp Theory Y’all Just Don’t Know (Concord Records, 2003)

Ralph Alessi & This Against That Look (Between the Lines, 2006)

Ravi Coltrane Mad 6 (Village Records/Sony, 2003)

Steve Coleman & Five Elements Resistance is Futile (Label Bleu, 2002)

—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2013