Pianist Andy Milne Designs His Future

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Andy Milne is fascinated by the connections among medical science, music and healing.

(Photo: Anna Yatskevich)

Pianist Andy Milne uses building metaphors to talk about music. Construction is “about how you bind two things together—and that’s how I think about composition,” he explained during a March interview in the Harlem apartment that he shares with his wife, singer La Tanya Hall.

Mere feet away sat the glossy Juno Award that he’d won in 2019 for The Seasons Of Being (Sunnyside), the fifth album with his long-running band, Dapp Theory. One of his idols, pianist McCoy Tyner, had just passed, and New York City’s sudden lockdown in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak was still 16 days away. But Milne didn’t know any of this yet.

Well before the Juno win, Milne had spent about a year renovating the couple’s apartment and pondering “how you design the bones of something,” as he put it, noting that “composers and architects, they have a way of figuring that out.” Soon, he’d be thinking about how to design the bones of a trio ensemble, a format that he’d never taken on as a leader. That Milne, accomplished in a multitude of small ensembles, had never led a trio recording during the course of his almost-30-year career puzzled some. Traditionally, jazz pianists make their most erudite statements in the format.

Milne was doing other things, though—big things—and he hadn’t felt the need. As an undergraduate student at York University in Toronto, he studied with legendary pianist and fellow Canadian Oscar Peterson. Soon after, saxophonist Steve Coleman tapped Milne to be the regular pianist for his game-changing M-BASE Collective, and in 1998 Milne formed Dapp Theory as a vehicle for his own inventive, syncretic compositions. He liked what he was doing.

But by spring 2017, Milne was ready to scale back. Several members of Dapp Theory would be unavailable for touring that fall, and Hall was preparing to record a standards album, with Milne serving as arranger and producer. Perhaps he, too, would do a standards-based album, utilizing the same trio for both releases.

“Then in the fall of that year, I got a cancer diagnosis,” Milne said. “I had to rethink everything. But I didn’t have any gigs with Dapp Theory then, so I just shifted gears.”

Unison, the trio whose construction he’d spent so much time pondering, had its first gig in December 2017, just a few days before Milne’s surgery for prostate cancer. At the time, he didn’t have much repertoire for a trio configuration. “But I had the musicians,” he said, referring to bassist John Hébert and drummer Clarence Penn. “I had taken a long time [in selecting them] because I really wanted to feel how it was going to work with the musical personalities. So, that was a pretty profound first date.”

That gig marked both a professional and personal transition for Milne. He moved from spearheading a seasoned, 10-person crew to nurturing a newly hatched chamber ensemble. And after surgery, he faced a long, uncertain road to remission. Although they were lengthy, both journeys were successful: On April 10, Sunnyside released The reMission and he’s been officially cancer-free for more than a year.

These transitions were anything but straightforward, however. Soon after surgery, he was jetting to Europe for some concerts (in hindsight, “a bad idea,” he admitted); finishing up Dapp Theory’s Seasons album; recording Hall’s sophomore release, Say Yes (Blue Canoe Records); recording and touring with prolific trumpeter Ralph Alessi; gigging throughout North America with Unison; and recording the trio’s first album not once, but twice. All the while following a rigorous healing protocol.

“I still managed to [create music], which is incredible,” Milne said. “But it was hard. I ended up having radiation treatment every day, for seven-and-a-half weeks, in the middle of the summer. And I rode my bike down there. Every day.”

Milne gives some credit for his recovery to the exertion of that daily, 20-mile journey. Besides such strenuous physical exercise, he also changed his diet completely and fasted intermittently.

“I really did a lot to make sure that those typical radiation symptoms didn’t happen to me,” he said. “So, I didn’t end up being super fatigued, and I was able to do this stuff. Mind you, [that time] was a little nuts.”

Milne’s interest in alternative healing modalities would come as no surprise to Dapp Theory fans. In 2013, he received a commission from Chamber Music America to compose the music for The Seasons Of Being based on the unique homeopathic diagnosis of each musician in the group. And as the adopted son of a physician in Ontario, Canada, he grew up immersed in Western medicine. In fact, the interrelatedness of medical science, music and healing has long fascinated him.

But as Milne was putting into practice the homeopathic principles that he’d explored on his previous album, his concept for the new album had begun to change. “It ended up taking a turn when I realized that maybe [standards] were not going to be the primary focus,” he said. “They were the primary focus of the arrangements that I did for La Tanya’s record, but not so much for what we were doing as a trio. That material was just getting baked as we were on the road.”

A seven-city tour in spring 2019 had a big impact on the group’s sound. Milne had written nine originals for the trio and even recorded them—a first stab at a trio album—but the tracks didn’t feel quite right.

“After we toured, though, we really had a vibe,” Penn recalled, speaking by phone from his Brooklyn home, where he and his family have been sheltering since the coronavirus lockdown. “We ended that tour and went [back] into the studio maybe two days later, and that’s what you’re hearing now. I think every take was from that one session.”

The emotionally complex album that came out of that session owes much to the single-
minded focus of the three players as they moved fluently through Milne’s dynamic compositions. Some tunes brim with hopefulness, like the crisp, brightly melodic “Winter Palace,” or the final cut, “Sad To Say,” with its reverently resonant outro. Others plumb the darker places, like “Dancing On The Savannah,” a rhythmic tumble into jarring harmonies, and “The Call,” a stark portrait in modern expressionism. But none of them lingers in any one state or mood very long. Milne’s vision is changeable.

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