video presentation by Molly Sheridan
For pianist/composer/bandleader Andy Milne, making music that navigates seamlessly between musical genres is not just the by-product of a personal theory of what the music of today could and should be. Being an astute listener to the world around him and playing in a wide array of styles throughout his career has enabled him to operate fluently in all of them. When we met up with him in a practice room in the jazz department of New York University, which is located far away from the central campus in a freshman dormitory, Milne spoke in great detail about how he has come to his polyglot musical vocabulary, opining that being open to a variety of influences and finding your own identity within them are ongoing processes.
“To the best of my abilities I try to operate in a post-genre mind set,” says Milne. “But I can’t escape certain tendencies I think I have based on the various experiences that have contributed to how I think and how I play and how I can understand and process music. Of course I’m always hoping that can continue to evolve and expand and grow and enrich me. You get to a certain point where it’s really up to your own tenacity and discipline to ensure that that exists with any kind of weight.”
According to Milne, collaborations between hip-hop and R&B artists he was hearing in the late ‘90s are what initially inspired him to form his group Dapp Theory in which he has incorporated elements of that blending into a jazz context. A decade and a half later, it is territory he continues to mine. The group’s performance at the Chamber Music America conference back in January was the first time a rapper appeared on one of CMA’s showcases, although the person doing the rapping, John Moon, was billed as a “percussive poet.” It was an extremely effective presentation, which also went further than most in challenging definitions and comfort zones.
“I think [hip-hop] is maybe a different world in the sense that there isn’t as formalized a pedagogy that has existed for a longer period of time within jazz and classical music,” Milne acknowledges. “That separates musical traditions and musical cultural communities by virtue of the fact that they don’t have these same types of institutions. I think there’s still learning, but it gets conducted in a different way. So there’s a blind spot there, but maybe it will get filled in at some point in time—everything changes. It’s taken a long time, I think, even within the scope of various emerging opportunities that continue to exist where jazz and classical music speak together.”
Yet for all of Milne’s embrace of everything from hip-hop and R&B to reggae and folk rock (he has recorded fabulous solo piano version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sherriff” and Stephen Stills’s “Love The One Your With”), he is perfectly fine calling the music he makes jazz. Not only does he not find jazz aesthetically limiting, he is extremely suspicious of musicians who reject the term:
I identify with jazz because it’s the music that I feel the most affinity with in terms of where I came from as a young person listening to music. I wouldn’t want to present myself as someone who listened with the same level of depth to hip-hop even; I didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop. So I would never feel comfortable saying “I come out of the hip-hop experience” in terms of my music.
In recent history there’ve been a few attempts to debunk the significance of jazz. Some people have agendas frankly to just further their careers by trying to call attention to themselves by being very dogmatic about some sort of political position on jazz. If you think about jazz in a very general sense, it’s incorporating improvisation—you don’t even have to get into whether you say it’s got to swing or not. It embraces music from all over the world and it always has, and a big part of it is improvisation.
Would you say that rock music is jazz? I don’t know if there’s the same degree of improvisation. But then again it gets so subjective, because then you can get into what do you consider improvisation. If something is sort of going to be the exact same way every night then it’s not necessarily improvised. There are certain things I want to be the same every night but there are huge sections where I want to have that give and take and that flow that I know the musicians I’ve brought to this can deliver.
Milne, however, concedes that not everything he has done fits comfortably within jazz. One of his most fascinating musical projects thus far has been Strings & Serpents, a collaboration with another jazz pianist Benoît Delbecq, animator Saki Murotani, and two Japanese koto players, Ai Kajigano and Tsugumi Yamamoto. While he and Delbecq improvise throughout, the koto players adhere much more closely to the score Milne composed for them.
Over the past few years, Milne has also begun composing film soundtracks as a result of his friendship with actor Avery Brooks, who is also an accomplished jazz singer and pianist though he is probably most widely known for his seven-year television stint as Captain Benjamin Sisko on the Star Trek sequel Deep Space Nine. When the actor who played Star Trek’s original captain, William Shatner, decided to make a documentary about all the actors who had served as captains in the various Trek incarnations, he queried the musical Brooks about who should do the soundtrack. Brooks immediately recommended Milne. In addition to being hired to score that film (The Captains), this has led to another whole side career for Milne performing at Star Trek conventions.
But Milne’s most recent project, The Seasons of Being, which premieres later this month in Lancaster (Pennsylvania), Baltimore, and New York City, is once again very firmly rooted in his polystylistic jazz sensibilities, albeit with an unusual twist. An hour-long work scored for a greatly expanded Dapp Theory (a total of ten players), it is a by-product of his deep interest in homeopathy:
We all have some form of dis-ease in our existence; often we treat it and often we don’t, but most of us can cope. You can say the word disease, but I think there’s another way of thinking about it by having the accent on it be dis-ease; there’s an uneasiness about something we maybe don’t ever get to or maybe don’t want to get to.
The precursor to even thinking about the idea was my own experience of going to see a homeopath and often he would make these analogies using music. He and I would have these conversations after our sessions and I wondered how I could incorporate that musically.
I began to actively start researching and developing models, figuring out how I would understand a musician from an emotional place and extract information from various people to come up with a model that would help me identify a pathology, as they refer to it in homeopathics. Primarily I’m trying to gear it toward the featured soloist during any given movement. A specific piece might be for the drummer to solo in, so I look at the results of having an assessment of all the intake information I have on the drummer and proceed to think, “What is the musical remedy?”