Juno-Winning Pianist Andy Milne Brings Unison Trio to Columbus August 2 and 3

For over 20 years, pianist Andy Milne has played at the forefront of the creative improvised music scene in New York. Milne lends his distinctive, vibrant sound to larger groups like Dapp Theory (whose Seasons of Being won a Juno in his native Canada), on soundtracks like The Captains (for the William Shatner-helmed documentary) and as a first-call sideman for artists ranging from clarinetist Don Byron to guitarist Ben Monder to poet Sekou Sundiata. But the piano trio, frequently the format most connected to jazz piano in a listener’s mind? Not so much. That changes with Unison, Milne’s trio with two of the finest improvisers working today, Clarence Penn on drums and John Hébert on bass. Columbus is lucky enough to get a glimpse of this trio on August 2 and 3 (tickets in link), with extra special guests trumpeter Ralph Alessi and vocalist La Tanya Hall. I talked with Andy about the upcoming appearance, his relocation to Ann Arbor, and his collaborators; continue reading for that interview as well as videos of the performers.

I supplemented my existing knowledge of Milne with a little research before we spoke by phone and was surprised by the lack of existing trios. He confirmed he explores new territory with this project. “This is my first trio in this period of my life. One of my first gigs coming out of school in Toronto was a trio gig – broadcast by the jazz station, what’s now JazzFM, at a really nice venue at the Science Center. I was a young guy, coming out of school, getting his first break…and it fell on the Monday night of this massive snowstorm, so there were, like, six people there. Which is tough when you’re doing a gig for radio!”

Milne talked about what made this the perfect time for the trio. “I did a little work with trios back then but focused on larger ensembles, focusing on my writing and a different kind of interplay.  But most of my close musical friends have been nagging me for many years, certainly the last ten or so, ‘When are you going to make a trio record? I’ll even produce it!’ It kept circling back to that and my response was, ‘I’m gonna do it, I’m thinking about it.’

“Then there was a perfect storm of events in my life,” Milne said, “I got diagnosed with prostate cancer so had to take some time off; I had a big project [Dapp Theory] based on homeopathic medicine that I couldn’t support because my life was going in a different direction, I couldn’t tour with a ten-piece band. So I decided, Maybe this is the time.”

“At the same time, I was working with my wife [La Tanya Hall], who’s a singer and will be at the Columbus gigs; she wanted to do a recording. I got the music [for that] together, we did some gigs with different musicians. I wanted to find the sweet spot for what this is, think about different instrumentalists to support what she was doing.”

Milne saw that multiplicity of purpose as an opportunity. “I’ve been in groups with vocalists where you [as an instrumentalist] might have a good rapport with one of the players, but maybe not the other. But it’s not your group, not your set, and maybe the vocalist wants you to play a trio tune upfront; you’re just being asked to present something. But [this] let me piggyback on two different faces of this trio for what I wanted to do artistically. I wanted to do more recognizable interpretations of standards that people didn’t associate with me. At the same time, at a gig, we could play three or four trio tunes and work out what that was going to be. I can use it in this way or that way; the best of both worlds.”

Milne put in significant work figuring out what his trio project was. He said, “There’s a certain sound people think of, a certain ‘piano trio’ jazz tradition, [that encompasses] Oscar Peterson to Ahmad Jamal to Herbie Hancock, there’s the canon – Mulgrew Miller, Fred Hersch – that creates a whole circle of how people relate to pianists in that very celebrated format. Where do I bring in all the experiences and textures and interests and curiosities that I’ve explored in [my] other projects for 20 years?”

“I need[ed] players that can appreciate all those directions I’ve traveled,” Milne said. “I’m fortunate to have found in Clarence [Penn] and John [Hébert] the camaraderie, the commitment, and the input in this trio. Bringing that into the mix has been exciting to further the journey of ‘What is this trio?’ I’m the leader and it’s mostly my compositions but we have conversations about the music I bring in and input flows pretty fluidly and freely. The name [Unison] feels right; they’re not just playing what I’m asking them to play.”

Milne talked about the journey to get those that level of trust in place with these two towering musicians. “John and I were introduced through a good friend of mine, the pianist  Benoît Delbecq; they’d been playing together. Then John ended up subbing in Ralph Alessi’s band and I think that was the first time I played with him. He had a great sound, how had I missed this guy? Then John had a quartet called Rambling Confessions and we did a few gigs and a record on Sunnyside. We started to build this rapport playing his music. He appreciated the way we interacted together and he encouraged me to do what I love to do – really float inside of forms, with a lot of textural space. He gave me a lot of license to do things I love doing.”

Milne said, “We were building this rapport – ‘Okay, here’s a bass player I love working with, with a beautiful sound. That’s really important to me, how beautiful sound is. We get enamored with the notes people play and complicated music. But sound is something that’s so pure and when someone is, not obsessive, but focused on it as an instrumentalist and bring that into the same space [with others], it’s a beautiful thing.”

Even the best of players don’t always contribute to the same mix needed for a project, as Milne discovered. “John and I did one trio gig with Andrew Cyrille on drums; that was the first time I played with Andrew. I was still testing out material, pulling in tunes from other projects, arranging a few standards to get the ball rolling, but I wasn’t sure what the music was going to be. A sound came out of that, a certain direction for exploration came out of that gig. It was a really amazing experience playing with Andrew and it was great to have that opportunity, but I needed a long-game solution. And right around that time I saw Clarence [Penn] play with Uri Caine and thought, ‘Oh, oh yeah.’ And that was kind of it.”

But Milne and Penn go far back. “Clarence [and I] moved to New York around the same time. I heard him play with Betty Carter, with Dianne Reeves, Scott Colley, Maria Schneider, a number of people. We had a number of mutual friends, we’d hang out, but we never crossed paths [playing], not even at a jam session. But every time I’d see him play, I think, ‘God, I love his sound.’ I love that he makes this music interesting and dynamic and doesn’t have to play loud to do it. He’s got such great feel and a great connection to the tradition of this music, yet he’s interested in lots of  forms of music.”

“Every time we’d run into each other, I’d say, ‘We’ve gotta start playing together.’ People say that often and then that statement falls flat but [I knew] we couldn’t let that happen. All these roads were pointing in a different direction, saying to me, ‘Okay, time to get a trio going,’ I knew, ‘There’s your guy.’ Drums have always been an important thing in my groups and as my friends were bugging me about a trio record, it was right there in front of me. I just asked and he said yes.”

“When I started presenting original music to [Clarence and John],” Milne said, “I was still writing music that, in my brain, was responding to the way I wrote and conceptualized for Dapp Theory. Intellectually, I knew I was writing for a trio but what was coming out from me was not music for this new band. I wrote some stuff, we recorded it… and I didn’t like it. So I scrapped it and started over. I had to build a convertible from the ground up rather than retrofitting things that came from different pieces of my brain.”

“It was sweet to go out on the road this Spring: hang out together a lot, talk about the music, and it starts to merge. At that point, I knew where we were going – I was writing after we’d done a few gigs. That made it easier, knowing we were going to go in the studio with music for this band we were all excited about. We recorded for release in the Spring of 2020.”

In addition to his wife, vocalist La Tanya Hall discussed above, Milne brings trumpeter Ralph Alessi – whose new ECM record this year, Imaginary Friends, features fiery playing from the quintet with especially rousing interplay between the two. Milne has a long history with Alessi, as he described: “Ralph has been one of my close musical colleagues for almost 30 years. We met in 1990 as students at the Banff Centre – studying with Steve Coleman, Robin Eubanks, Stanley Cowell, Rufus Reid. It was a life-changing experience and there were a lot of students there [that summer] who ended up all staying connected and moving to New York: Tony Malaby; George Colligan; Ralph; Ethan Iverson; Ellen Rowe who’s now my colleague at the University of Michigan, actually the reason I got hired. It was an interesting year.”

“[At the time] Ralph and I almost didn’t hit it off. I was busting his chops too much about the way he was writing his charts! He got into the Steve Coleman circle in the mid-’90s and we started playing a lot then, in Steve’s bands. After I left Steve, I started playing in Ravi Coltrane’s band, and Ravi and Ralph are very good friends. So Ralph was often in those bands when it was a quintet and we played together in Ravi’s context, then Ralph appeared as a guest on my very first record in ‘97.”

“When [Alessi] asked me to join his group, it was a serious growth period. He writes with so much personality, it’s a pleasure to be in a band where you’re given license to do things but you also have interesting things demanded of you in the form of what the music is doing, but [without being] so overbearing that you can’t find your own responses. And there’s room to really interact; it’s a wonderful balance of creating structure and direction but also this fluidity to have these viable, evolving conversations. We developed a very strong connection by playing these tours in various iterations of his group: some with Ravi, some with Don Byron, some with Tony Malaby.

“Then Ralph was moving around in a couple of different projects, so that quintet took a breather for a minute. We did that ECM record [Imaginary Friends] when he wanted to get it back in rotation, and that was great because we did a three-week tour, playing every night, 9 gigs straight at the beginning of the tour. We came into the studio ready to hit, like ‘Let’s do this.’ And it’s interesting, the first half of that tour, John Hébert was on bass! So part of my trio go to play someone else’s music and he influenced how I approached that music on the record before Drew Gress came in for the second half. I might not have created the same kind of things if Drew played the whole tour.”

I was also intrigued by the news that Milne had begun teaching at UM last year. I asked for thoughts on how going from two prestigious part-time teaching gigs in New York to a full-time post at a prestigious but midwestern school changed things for him. 

He responded, “As of yet, I haven’t been quote-unquote ‘living’ in Ann Arbor. I’m about to start packing up when we get off the phone to begin that move; that’s a different animal. I’ve always been based around New York but I have a home in Northwestern Pennsylvania, a couple of hours out of the city and that’s sort of been my creative space.”

In a more general sense, Milne said, “It’s an interesting discipline to create and experience and express and interact all in the same place. Sometimes you have to get away to create – I know over the years I’ve done residencies. The grind of life, distractions, and responsibilities, it almost doesn’t matter where you live. When you go away from that, with a singular focus, it ups the ante.”

“Being in an academic environment like Michigan creates new ways in which I can do research because I’ve got different kinds of collaborative initiatives which the university has resources for. That was something I didn’t have access to in my teaching gigs in New York. What I was curious about doing I can do more fluidly in Michigan, because the university has more resources to support me in my interests.”

“I’m working on a research project with a couple of colleagues, one from design and one from medicine, about how you interface the arts and music with treatment of chronic pain. That happened really quickly here and I’d been trying to create that window in New York for years. With the New York positions, we’re all part-time lecturers, it feels very itinerant, we’re racing off to our next thing. It’s very different being on a campus with an office and part of this [kind] of academic community, where it’s encouraged and there are resources to support it.”

“Ralph and I run the School for Improvised Music together, he was part of the very first record I did, he was part of the Seasons of Being record, as is my wife, La Tanya Hall. As we talked about earlier, we were already working on music for her next record and [the group] had that rapport. We’ll do a couple of tunes from [the Hall project], 60% of the Columbus gigs will be the trio, and then we’ll do a couple of tunes as a quartet.”

Don’t miss this opportunity to see some of America’s finest improvising talent before there’s even a record out – Milne gave me a preview of a couple of tracks and it’s a piano trio for the ages; a record we’ll all be talking about next year. A talk about his career at the Bexley Public Library at 12:00 noon Friday, August 2; a happy hour later that day at 5:00 pm at Cafe Istanbul; and a headlining performance on August 3 at 8:00 pm at Capital University’s Huntington Hall.

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