For over 25 years, Juno Award winning pianist/composer Andy Milne has demonstrated boundless versatility, collaborating with dancers, visual artists, poets and musicians spanning jazz, classical, pop, folk, and world music.
A former student of Oscar Peterson, Milne has performed with a range of artists including Cassandra Wilson, Ralph Alessi, and Bruce Cockburn, and has composed, performed and produced scores for seven films by acclaimed actor/director William Shatner.
His love of piano lead to the creation of “The reMission”, his latest release, which is up for Group Jazz Album of the Year at this year’s Juno Awards on June 6.
We spoke with him about the album, the Juno’s and working with Shatner.
The Juno Awards are coming up soon and you’re up for Jazz Album of the Year with Unison. It’s not your first nomination – you won in 2019. What do the Juno Awards mean to you?
I was nominated a couple of years ago. Once you have a little bit more miles under your belt, as a musician, it feels more meaningful. At this point in my life, it feels meaningful, just because I understand how things work in the music field. It feels great to be acknowledged by my peers in my music community, for the work I’ve been doing over these years. I suppose if I’d been nominated 20 years ago, I might not have understood it. But it means a lot more now, and because I left Canada a long time ago, and even though I participate in, musical collaborations with Canadians, and still come to Canada to perform when I can, it’s nice to know that all that work is not necessarily lost in terms of people not remembering who you are.
The Juno Awards are great for introducing people to bands and music they might not otherwise know about. Here’s your chance to tell those people who you are and what you do.
I’m a pianist composer, grew up in Southwestern Ontario, and I moved to the United States in 1991. I’ve been performing in the jazz world, but collaborating with artists, in and outside of jazz for my whole career. Most notably, as far as Canadians that a lot of people would have heard of, I’ve collaborated with Bruce Cockburn, William Shatner as a former student of Oscar Peterson. In between my own projects, I also teach at the University of Michigan. I teach music and improvisation and composition. I have a big interest in wellness and music and how these two things intersect. But a lot of my work has been in the jazz field and creative improvise world. But, like I said, I’ve worked with artists who are not necessarily associated with jazz or not even musicians.
Is there a favourite Juno moment you’ve had either as a nominee, watching on TV or as an audience member?
It was pretty big moment to win on my first nomination two years ago. That was pretty exciting. I got the nomination two years ago, on my birthday, actually. I don’t think I quite processed it. I read the email, and I thought, I think I just got nominated for a Juno. I thought maybe I was misunderstanding the communication. I kind of laugh at how it took me a moment to process it. I haven’t seen the Juno’s on television for many years, because I haven’t lived in Canada for a long time. It was kind of strange to acclimate to the Juno’s while being there.
The whole experience in London two years ago was a real blast and it was exciting to hang out with some of my other fellow nominees or good friends and just soak up the opportunity to interface with musicians from different parts of the musical landscape, because it’s not just the Awards and the celebration – doing interviews and winning and speaking to nominees. It’s also the social hang. Then there’s sometimes performances, there was actually performances that took place the night before the Juno’s two years ago. There’s a lot of other events that circle around it.
With the Juno’s being in London two years ago, it was so close to home. Did you have family come out?
None of my family came. If my entire family came, they would occupy too many seats, but they were all watching and cheering on television or screaming wherever they happened to be. My wife came with me. I live in Michigan, so London was just a short drive
Are you happy “The reMission” album was chosen for nomination over some of the others?
I wasn’t thinking so closely about the Juno’s in some of my earlier recordings, so I hadn’t actually been in for consideration for several recordings. At this point, in my career, I’ve done a bunch of things, and have a certain benchmark that I try to maintain for when I’m making recordings and releasing them into the world. So I feel pretty happy about most of the recordings I’ve been putting out in over the last few years, because they reflect at certain time, the honored process of growing as an artist and figuring out how to produce a recording and how to present it in a certain way. So I’m very happy with it, I was very elated to get nominated, because there’s lots of great recordings out there, and a lot of artists that have made wonderful recordings every year. So it’s wonderful to be included in that pool of nominees. I was very happy with that recording, actually, it was a heartfelt project to create, and so nice to have it receive some momentum that way.
Aside from the obvious with Unison as a trio, what do you think made “The reMission” more noticed than other albums?
I don’t know that it’s more noticeable, necessarily. I think I’m just at a place where I know what my work means to me, and how I can describe that, and express and share with people. Whereas, some of my earlier recordings, maybe I didn’t have the same perspective on my work or how it fits into the greater landscape of music at any particular time. So for me, “The reMission” was my own response to having a cancer diagnosis, and the changes that had to make in my life, both professionally and personally. And so that’s significant, but it’s not what the music is saying necessarily, but I think that there’s a truthfulness, there’s an honesty, there’s a sincerity, there’s a weight and magnitude to real life stuff, and real life experience that goes into art making that resonates.
Did you enjoy the dynamics of working as a trio?
Yes. Many of the groups that I played in over the years, as a pianist, the trio is really like the nerve center. It’s like a heartbeat the way a lot of things get grafted around that. And so I’ve always enjoyed that relationship that exists between a bass player, a pianist and the drummer usually, and yet I have not, until recently started to explore that more consistently.
The very first content that this group did was actually right before I was getting my treatment for cancer, like a week before that. It was magical. It was like a magical first date when you have people that really listen and have such capacity. Most of their focus is on how they make the other people sound better, and when that happens, it’s really magical, so that’s what I love about playing with this trio because there’s a lot of support, there’s a lot of freedom, and there’s a lot of empathy and deeper communication and deeper conversation that happens – and that’s a beautiful thing.
It can happen in lots of different configurations. But there’s something special about the trio where the proportions are such that you’ve got three people, and they’re all different, and they all respect one another, and we have this common goal and there’s just enough, it’s like a sweet spot. I think the responsibility just gets so evenly distributed in a trio, which is kind of an interesting, mathematical equation, maybe. I haven’t thought about it that way before, but it’s an interesting proportion, where it’s just perfect. It’s hard not to love.
As a trio, the piano isn’t always the spotlight. You were obviously OK with this.
I don’t want the spotlight all the time. The piano is often one playing the melody and taking lead on certain things. I don’t always put myself in that position. Mainly because it’s nice to showcase these other great artists – Clarence Penn, and John Hébert are fantastic musicians. I want to be able to showcase them, but they bring things that I can’t do. So it would be pointless for me to want to be in the center all the time.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve done collaborations – from dancers, visual artists, poets and musicians. Why such an array of partnerships?
It’s the ability to reach people and that’s what I think is so powerful about art and performing art – you have different points of entry, they’re almost like gateway drugs, except they’re more healthy. It’s like the way which you can penetrate somebody’s experience or penetrate the way someone received something, there’s all these different, fascinating, tracks to go down. Everybody’s seeing films and television, and we may not understand on an intellectual level, but we understand from an experiential level, how powerful that relationship can be with music. When you see an image, but you hear some sound, at the same time, there’s something that triggers a reaction or emotional reaction or chemical reaction, even within the relationship between music individuals. I think that there’s such a rich history of the way in which arts collide, and how both as the person that’s doing it and creating it, but also from the point of view of the person experiencing it. I’ve just always had an interest in that, and I’ve been fortunate to perform and collaborate with artists, who, that was also important to them. So that sort of led the way for me, from an early point of my career where I witnessed what the power of different kinds of unique collaborations and so I just adopted that, because I’ve seen how powerful that can be and there’s always a challenge in finding a new language with another person or other entity.
That’s part of something that I cherish as a growth process for me, because I’m interacting and communicating with people that need different things and needed to process something in a different way. But the outcome is much more enriched in a way than if I’m staying within a more consistent environment. If I always collaborate with the same type of people or the same type of musicians, versus challenging myself to see where I can reach across the line and reach across the aisle in a way.
Is there a specific collaboration that you enjoy a little bit more than others?
I don’t know, if I would characterize things that way. I enjoy collaborations that are respectful and where you’re working in partnership, and you can have it come to fruition, whether it’s a business relationship, or an artistic relationship, the ones that I like, are the ones that I can flourish and thrive in. The ones that I don’t like, I can still maybe learn something. But I just prefer to try to align myself in a way where I can be thriving, that’s the benchmark for me.
You had the chance to learn from a legend. Tell me about Oscar Peterson.
Oscar was a beautiful man where he had just so much light. He’s an intimidating figure because of the weight of which he didn’t impose on anybody. It’s just that, because he’s incredible, brilliant as a musician and his legacy, he walks into the room, and you’re captivated yet intimidated by that, but as a young person, especially, but he never presented himself in a way that was deliberately trying to spook his students out that way. He was super generous, and loving. He tried to help me understand a way to be more complete with music.
Those lessons with him I will always cherish for rest of my life because of how they were simple lessons, almost in a way where you don’t get, when you’re standing there, you get it two weeks later, when you’re thinking about it so much. Sometimes I think when people tell you something, and it’s sort of, Okay, I understand, it’s not as impactful – maybe it’s when you have to really earn it by them just giving you something and then you have to sort of arrive at your own understanding of what they’ve shared with you. He taught me how to understand that the sound that you get on the piano, is not necessarily being the piano. it’s not just the piano, of course, the piano, and the instrument helped greatly. But it’s also a sound that you have to have in your head, in your ears and in your hands.
Why are you so passionate with the Piano? Has that always been your first musical instrument of love? What drew you to the piano?
I’ve played other instruments, but I’ve always maintained a relationship with the piano. It’s like an orchestra all in one to me. I hear so many other instrumental textures, and visually, because it’s laid out in a way where you can see everything, Sonically, of course, it’s not an orchestra, but it’s sort of it represents that to me. It represents a drum ensemble as well, because it’s such a percussive instrument. Then there’s so much inside the piano, that’s fascinating to look at it to explore, and to find a way to tap into the mechanics of the instrument to sort of create sound. So to me, it’s really rich, and it’s hard to tackle, so it’s this forever relationship.
I was practicing just few minutes ago, before we got on the call here, for a show tomorrow night. I can think about music, and then I can think about the piano. Sometimes I can separate the two things and think about the way in which I approach the piano versus the music. At some point I have to synthesize those two things, to make them a little bit more cohesive in the way I present music. Sometimes I think about them in separate processes where I’m like, Okay, this is a piano issue versus this is a music issue, and then I have to find a way to synthesize those.
You mentioned you have a fairly large family, is your entire family musical?
They all love music, I wouldn’t say that they are musical, from the point of view of being professionals, but they all they all have a passion for music, and they all enjoy music in their lives. Sometimes when we gather, we use music as a social point of connectivity, where we might sing music together or perform for each other in sort of a half joking kind of way, but still just fun in that. But that’s everybody approaching it from an amateur point of view, as opposed to being professionals. I have one sister that’s at a point in her life, where she has done a lot of performing in the theatre, community theatre productions and things like that, but nobody else is a professional musician.
You’re in Michigan now as an assistant professor of music at the University of Michigan. Do you still feel a strong connection to Canada?
Well, aside from the fact that I can’t get across the border right now because of this pandemic, I feel a great connection to Canada, probably stronger now than I ever have since leaving to come to the US. Partly because I’m in Michigan and it’s close. I feel like I almost see Canada from here. CBC Television comes in on my cable television. That’s the first time in my life living in the US that they could actually sit down and watch the evening news from Canada on TV. I think because the topography in this part of the state, in particularly is generally very similar to Southwestern Ontario. So there’s a certain visual familiarity and then just the proximity of knowing normally, I could except for this pandemic, but under normal circumstances I haven’t lived here a long time, so it’s something still new. But, when I was first just getting settled here, I felt that I could go visit my sister in two hours and that was something that I could never do – it took me eight, nine hours, or a flight, and then maybe even a drive as well from New York when I lived there. So this creates a lot of connectivity. For me, that’s comforting. I look forward to when I can actually cross the border and visit my family, and it’s quite easy for me.
Talking about Canada, we interviewed William Shatner a few years back and I just realized you’ve worked with him quite a few times. Tell me about how you met him and what he’s like to work with.
Working with Bill was great. He’s obviously a pop culture icon. There’s a certain kind of air that’s carried around him, it’s like an orbit, but when you’re just there one on one with him, he’s a regular guy. Yes, he’s a very famous actor, but he’s a regular guy that you can chew the fat with and he’s a very intense person, and very probing and very inquisitive. I respect that, because I ask a lot of questions myself, so I like the way that he is always curious. It was impressive to see how tireless he is in terms of his searching and need to know that somebody knows what’s going on. I always appreciated his drive. I was just telling somebody yesterday, going to a screening and we were having drinks before the screening and he was basically musing about a new project. Then we got back to the screening he went up to reception and presented this new project, like it was baked for weeks or months, and it literally was just taking shape in this conversation in a hotel lobby. I respect that sort of drive.
We met through the actor / musician Avery Brooks who I worked with for several years. He brought me into the production team to compose the music the film that Shatner had been producing called The Captains Close Up, that he directed and was in the film. During their interviews, they started talking about the music and Avery said, I have a guy for you. I have the guy that should do this music. And so that’s how I was introduced to him and then we went on to continue to work together and I compose the music for additional films that he was directing, and that was a really nice window to have access to him and also just to be associated with him.
In the work that he’s doing, funnily enough, I was updating some computer stuff last night and I was pulling up the session on my computer to the score I did for a film that not many people have seen, it was called Still Kicking. It’s a conversation between William Shatner and Christopher Plummer, may he rest in peace, on the stage at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.
They were reminiscing about their time there in the 50s, and their time in Toronto, and doing radio plays, and all the people, producers and other actors that that they had interactions with. It was this wonderful conversation. Not many people saw the film, but I got to write the music for it and I felt like I was this fly in the wall in this wonderful little piece of Canadian history. Just being able to watch this film, and then decide where the music went.
As we were producing this film together, I was thinking about that film last night, because I just loaded the session up because I was doing some new work on my computer, and I wanted to make sure that session still loads up. That was a really special movie. It was really an honor to be part of that.
What’s ahead for you for this year and beyond?
I’m hoping to do a solo piano record. This space that I’m in right now is my studio that I created here in my home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s now in a place where I feel like I did the recording for this piece from both myself and a couple of the other artists that I had on record here in the studio. I think I would like to record a solo piano album here sometime over the summer. Then I’m mainly going to spend the most of my time this summer, studying, listening, composing, and reading. I don’t know exactly what’s going to come out of that I just need to write a lot of new music and I need to purge the fallout of this pandemic and this last 14 months of feeling I didn’t know where I wanted to put my energy.
Last year, I put my energy into my students, and that was because it was a necessity and we had to find a way to make the year work. So I put a lot of energy into that. But right now, this summer, I really need to put a lot of energy recharging myself and creating some new work, I think there’s probably a few unfinished projects that I have to return to. The deadline came and went and then the project didn’t happen, so you’re like, well, I never really finished this to my satisfaction. There is a piece I was writing for an orchestra a few years ago that I never really finished to my satisfaction, so I need to get back to that, because I can’t really ever present it until it’s done. I’d like to get that accomplished this summer.
The other big thing is I’m working on is some research here at the University that is about healing and music. There’s a website that I’ll be launching, it’s kind of a research portal to basically aggregate some data about the way people respond to music, but using a certain set of questions, it’s a little hard to explain, but basically, it’s a more targeted way of being able to prescribe music to someone for a healing purpose.
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