Jazz pianist, Juno Award winner, and U-M professor Andy Milne guides us through his new album, "The reMission"


Andy Milne

Photo by Chris Drukker

When jazz pianist Andy Milne moved to Ann Arbor in 2018 to become an assistant professor of music, jazz, and contemporary improvisation at the University of Michigan, he didn't know he would win the 2019 Juno Award for Jazz Album of the Year by a group for The Seasons of Being record with his Dapp Theory ensemble. 

But Milne did know he had survived prostate cancer in 2017, so winning Canada’s Grammy equivalent was a nice side note to, you know, being alive.

After recovering from cancer but before moving to Michigan, Toronto-area native Milne, who had lived in New York City since the early 1990s, also started the Unison trio featuring drummer Clarence Penn and bassist John Hébert, composing stripped-down music that is the opposite of Dapp Theory’s fractured-funk polyphony, which features a multitude of instruments and voices. The trio released its debut album, the contemplative The reMission, in April and had planned a tour for May, which the coronavirus pandemic wiped out.

While Milne was disappointed he wasn't able to promote The reMission, he's used the downtime to get acquainted with Ann Arbor now that his wife, the singer and Oberlin College and Conservatory educator La Tanya Hall, was finally able to join him in Michigan.

Plus, he looking forward to diving into what the University of Michigan has to offer in terms of combining his interests in pairing music with science and research.

“I realized when I came here, my primary focus was like, ‘Oh, I’m coming to Ann Arbor to take this teaching position and really embrace a role in the university community,’ both within [the school of] music, theater, and dance and just exploring where my path and where my place would be in the university,” Milne said. “So, I’ve been collaborating with faculty and researchers in different areas of the university for public health and these kinds of things. I’m finding where my zone will be inside of that.”

Combining music with other disciplines has long informed Milne’s work, including Dapp Theory’s The Seasons of Being, which coalesced around ideas he learned while treating his cancer with homeopathy, and the documentary soundtracks he’s composed for Capt. Kirk himself, William Shatner. (The reMission’s “Vertical on Opening Night” is named after something Shatner said in one doc.)

Being at a large research university like Michigan means Milne can continue to explore cross-disciplinary creativity, all in a town he finds welcoming and easy to navigate.

“I think it’s probably just the proximity of everything,” Milne says of Ann Arbor. “The fact that I’m living close to my work, and people are super-friendly here, and there’s great restaurants. I mean, it’s a really livable city, and I’ve been able to get out and enjoy riding my bike and exploring neighborhoods and things like that. I like the feeling here.”

While Milne wasn't able to go out and promote The reMission, he did give us a song-by-song tour of the new album, which you can listen to below on Spotify as you read his commentary.

“Passion Dance”

Q: How did you come to choose McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance” as the first tune you've interpreted by another jazz artist for one your one of your own records?
A: I’ve always loved McCoy's original version of that. Then I got a recording of him with his big band playing it. And then and there I think I rediscovered the piece in terms of my present-date mindset [about it]. ... I had the Kenny Barron recording where he played it, and came through shuffling through music and listened to it. It's a great tune. It’s one of those moments where you just hear something and -- it wasn't a conscious decision; I just started arranging it, playing around with it, and then started writing these lines. And the next thing I know, I was like, OK, here's something. I want to try this and now I have a group that I think it would make sense to try it with. It took a lot of doing to find our place with that arrangement. We tried it at a bunch of gigs and it was like nah, not quite right. We rehearsed it a couple of times, we got lucky with the right tempo. Other times it wasn't really obvious where it was going to lie. It took us a while, but I felt pretty committed that I wanted to try to record it. So we put extra energy into playing it and rehearsing, and had some sound checks to get it to the place where we thought, OK, we know what this is, what we can do with it.

I don't think I planned on making it the first tune on the recording. I went through a whole process of thinking about how I wanted to sequence everything. And it wasn't actually the first tune initially. And then I just wasn't happy with the way everything was sequencing, so I just started from scratch. Then I found this wonderful bookend where I had the Benny Golson tune as the last tune.

It wasn't a deep thought process about recording “Passion Dance, like, “This is gonna be the first time I'm gonna play somebody else's music that's identified with the sort of canon and history of jazz.” It just worked out that way.

Q: Kenny Barron’s recording is with a trio, but McCoy Tyner's original version was as a quartet with Joe Henderson on tenor sax. How so? Did you take more from Kenny's arrangement? Or did you go back to McCoy's original and then reinterpret it? Because you slowed the tempo for your version and there's still a hard-bop element to the McCoy Tyner’s version and you guys break that down a little bit.
A: I don't think it's a matter of taking much from either version as much as you have an essence of the tune and then you go off and explore it. I listened to both versions many times, but I think when you are taking your own liberties, you have to live in it. For me, living in it usually means sitting down by myself at the piano and just seeing what sticks; then I go off and tinker and explore and develop those things. So, there was this rhythmic idea that I thought, oh, well, I could displace this and come up with a different kind of rhythmic heartbeat for this that I might want to explore with the group. And then these other counterpoints, and then these reharmonizations came as a result of me just taking ownership for a moment. It's a slippery slope sometimes because there are certain artists that we put on a pedestal, or we feel like we don't want to disrespect or modify or reinterpret their music too much. But I think there's also this other complementary nature to [interpreting] great artists, or to great music because it's resilient and it's well constructed. You know how people talk about a house having good bones, it's like when you have a piece of music that has good bones and you can kick it a little bit because it's got the stamina to endure.


Q: You mentioned discovering a rhythmic heartbeat for “Passion Dance.” The second song on the album, the dark and mysterious “Resolution,” almost sounds like it starts with a heartbeat pulse or maybe an IV drip or something like that. I got this picture of you maybe during your illness and being in the hospital, perhaps looking up and hearing the sounds around you.
A: Well, when I think about when I came out of my surgery, you come out and there’s this slow drip of returning to consciousness. It's a very disorienting kind of thing and you're usually a little bit cold. And you don't know where you are; you were asleep when you came into this room and you don't know where you are and you're very, very vulnerable and kind of emotional. ... I don't know that I am always able to translate those types of things directly into musical works.

That piece, actually, it's interesting, you would hear that, but I wrote it on New Year's Day last year and thinking about the kind of next horizon that I knew I was embarking on a tour with the trio. I don't think I knew when I was going to make the recording; I knew it was something that was going to happen, but I wasn't sure with which musicians or with a label or what was going to happen, so I just started writing.

I love talking to people about what they hear in something because there’s so many different interpretations and then never exactly -- or even remotely close -- to what you intended.

“Winter Palace”

Q: After “Resolution,” which has a more free-floating harmonic sense, you come back with “Winter Palace,” which is built on this driving ostinato and there’s a more hopeful, joyful sound to it. Is that specifically about winter in Michigan? Because you’ve spent most of your life in cold places.
A: Yeah, I wrote that one in my office at the university and there was a heck of a snowstorm going on outside. That was during my first winter here and I was living in a house with a bunch of folks. It wasn’t really my home; it was just a place to stay. So I spent a lot of time in my office because I didn’t have anything in the house; just a bed and an address. I didn’t have a piano or a desk, so it was just more conducive for me to work in my office. ... But yeah, that had its origins very much in the winters of Michigan.

“Vertical on Opening Night”

Q: “Vertical on Opening Night” is built on a simple riff and the song blooms from there. What does the title refer to?
A: That came from a film score I had written -- I’ve composed several for William Shatner -- a few years ago. There's actually a couple pieces on the record from the scores. Generally in films you're not able to develop ideas too much because it's just servicing the film. They're dramatic energy under the dialogue and the movement in the story.

Shatner is getting ready to do his one man show opening on Broadway and he's sick. And he's so it just starts with him getting out of a limo and it's this rainy night and he's trying to hold it together and he's having a little soup in the dressing room. I know a lot of times film composers don't bother to name the compositions because it's just kind of cumbersome if there's 100 different pieces of music, right? But that particular film. I chose to name all the cues just because it was an interesting exercise. And so he said something in that moment where he's just like, “I hope I'm going to be vertical on opening day.” 

Knowing him like I do, he has unbelievable optimism. All the odds stacked against him and he's still going to be like, “Hey, I want to do this, I'm gonna make this happen.” ... So that cue was really supporting that, but then I went and added to it because I had an opportunity to do a concert a couple of years after the film came out and I took several of the cues that I had written for the film and made pieces out of them. But this one in particular lent itself well for the trio because I could really hear John playing this melody because he said such a beautiful sound and he's such a lyrical player. There's a couple of places where we can kind of just linger for a moment and explore sound, maybe more of an abstraction of sound, for a moment and then you get back into the piece.

Q: “Drive-by – The Fall,” the next song on the album, is the most like a Dapp Theory tune. The rhythms are sort of broken up and the sound is more fractious than other songs on the album. Did that start out as something that you had in mind for Dapp Theory that you adapted to the trio or you always knew this was going to be for the trio?
A: No, I wrote it for the trio. We had done a session in 2018 that I had intended to become this trio recording and I just wasn't happy with it. But as I took time to examine it and listen to it, have friends weigh in and whatnot, it was really an issue of I wasn't really writing for Dapp Theory but I wasn't writing for the trio. It was kind of like leftover reflexes for how I write for Dapp Theory. And even though the music was playable by a trio, it wasn't tapping into what the trio could be or what was the purpose of the trio and its true identity needed to be massaged. I was still kind of writing for Dapp Theory. So when I scrapped all that and I went back to the drawing board, I knew that I had to think more intensely about what this trio was rather than imposing something on to it that maybe wasn’t getting the best of those components. So that piece was me feeling like I'd found that sweet spot [between Dapp Theory and the trio].

“Anything About Anything”

Q: The next song, “Anything About Anything,” continues the album’s theme of alternating more abstract or rhythmic pieces and more lyrical pieces. It almost has an ECM-type quality and I know you did album with trumpeter Ralph Alessi on ECM. Was that sound an influence on this tune?
A: I listened to a lot of those recordings growing up, but I don't necessarily identify with the classic ECM sound, although working with [producer] Manfred [Eicher] in the studio, was certainly a really awesome opportunity to feel connected and have a deeper appreciation for how he makes recordings and how he's made so many quintessential recordings in his career. But that was the other piece, actually, that I wrote for film score for Shatner and it was the closing credits to one of these films that we only ended up using, like 10, 15 seconds. A sweet little ballad. I didn't even get to play the whole melody. So I had been playing it with the trio or even Dapp Theory a few times because I liked the simplicity, the lyrical, and the expansiveness of the piece, and depending on what hands you put it in, you could have that character -- and sure, there’s the potential for that kind of ECM aesthetic to weave through the group, and that piece spoke to those combined sensibilities.

“Dancing on the Savannah”

Q: Right after that, you go back to a more driving type of song with “Dancing on the Savannah,” which is built on a bass ostinato and an off-kilter rhythm, and the pattern opens up as the song goes on and even starts to break apart. Tell us about the structure of the song and what the title refers to.
A: I got the title from an Ann Arbor resident, Jennifer Pollard, when we performed at Kerrytown [Concert House]. For that tour I had a bunch of tunes that I'd written that I didn't have titles for, so I had this little contest going on the gigs where I had people either email [suggestions] to me or give me a piece of paper with the number of the tune in the se and which title they were suggesting -- and I put them all in a spreadsheet, that’ just how my brian works. I modified her original suggestion slightly. 

But that piece, I was writing it right up until the tour started, and when I went to the airport to pick the guys up, I was sitting there with my computer trying to get it done. I needed a couple more pieces to finish the material that we're going to play on this tour; I was just frantically trying to get it done. And it wasn't really finished when we started the tour; we just had half of it. But I knew that the first half was fine but it was missing another release. And so the second section is a release, and I wrote that when we were in Los Angeles on tour. I think I finished it up at home in New York right before we went to the studio. I just sat down and did the grunt work. The inspiration was there; I just needed to polish it off.

Q: It has an interesting structure the way it starts to tight and then seamlessly billows into the second section, but you still first a connection to opening half -- there’s a tightness underneath this cloud of sound.
A: That’s the thing with composition, there's a certain amount of retention and there's a certain amount of introduction of new information. And so even with something like an interview, there's a bit of the question in the answer in order to weave the two components together. I think the point of having some sort of retention of something that comes before—whether it be texturally or literally a motivic thing—that it helps bind it together.

“The Call”

Q: “The Call” switches back to something more ominous and open. If “Resolution” reminded me of waking up in the hospital, “The Call” reminded me of listening to distant thunderstorms and waiting for them to roll in. “The Call” has that tension to me.
A: Interesting, interesting. I love hearing this stuff. This is the most fun for me having someone else say, “This is what hit me.” When I wrote that piece, it kind of foreshadowed what I was going to go through with my life -- this was before the cancer diagnosis; I wasn’t expecting the call. It’s more about the unexpected call of any kind. There can be an apprehension and then the very same gesture can provide multiple different outcomes emotionally. The way the piece is explored initially is much different from the way it resolves. It’s not one energy from start to finish. 

I think this is more of a reflection of what I think [a tune] might have to do with because when I sit down to write, I’m not necessarily channeling something -- sometimes I am. I think a friend of mine had called me and we were talking about types of sounds that I might have explored that I hadn't explored yet and what purpose would this have for a future record project. There’s a little bit of that woven into the beginning of how I structured the sound with the bass playing its melody.


Q: “Geewa” comes back with more energy, it’s loose, it’s quirky. What does “Geewa” refer to?
A: That’s the nickname we have for harmonica player Grégoire Maret. We had a duo together -- we played that piece a little bit, but it just reminds me of the spirit he brings to the music. I recorded it on my solo piano record, and I played it with people in different configurations, then it found its way into the trio. It has a nice playfulness to it but with a cerebral kind of seriousness.

“Sad to Say”

Q: The album ends with “Sad to Say,” a Benny Golson tune, and we’re back to the darkly lyrical, mysterious side of The reMission
A: That piece is I just happened to stumble on this recording of Benny Golson’s he had with Freddie Hubbard and Mulgrew Miller and Smitty Smith and I think Ron Carter. I heard it and I was just, “Oh, my God.” 

What happened was I was teaching a class before I came to Michigan where I was having my students improvising to scenes from films ... and it was around that time I stumbled across this piece, and it was so cinematic the way they played it. Benny Golson was such a fantastic composer, and he wrote a lot for film and television. But he has a way of just cutting right to it, and that piece was like this Italian ballad or something. It just took me to places, and I introduced it to my students to play in that class, and they loved it. And I’m like, “What the hell, why should they have all the fun?” So I started playing the tune. 

We tried a few different versions of it and played it on the road and that was just how it ended up. ... I didn't place a lot of pre-arrangement on the Benny Golson piece whereas with McCoy’s I did. With Golson’s it was like this is how in the tradition of playing jazz, a group of musicians will play a piece of piece and they’ll just start freely constructing a beautiful arrangement on the spot, so there’s more of that. 

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.