Translating the unconscious

“Andy Milne, as in ‘kiln,'” writes the young jazz-piano sensation in the liner notes of his new CD, Forward to Get Back (d’Note Records, 1997). And the hot comparison is apt.

Backed on the disc by Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Mark Prince on drums, Reggie Washington on bass, and Robin Dixon on vocals, Milne offers a monumental conflagration of jazz, blues, pop, Latin and classical — akin to Chick Corea, but festooned with sprigs of Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Bruce Cockburn and Keith Jarrett.

“Housework,” the CD’s first composition, creeps in with Corea-esque percussional piano jolts, layered behind lilting (but wordless) vocals and pondering bass lines. It soon becomes a brisk dance of piano and drum, shadowing and circling one another in a playful quid pro quo. If this is housework, it’s done with tap shoes and a velvet cloth.

“Betwixt and Between” and “Hemispheres” are similar, in that both express Milne’s desire to remain grounded in the immensity of jazz history, while breaking through with a personal communique.

Milne calls the disc’s final cut, “Summons to the Dance,” “a mixture of Max Roach and Bartok. … I’d been listening to Roach, and then I heard some Bartok, and somehow my mind started playing with the two. The song itself is about moving to the next level, about speaking from an inside and trying to find out what it is, and hopefully you find it. … I want to translate the unconscious.”

Milne is both self-effacing and serious, with a boyish enthusiasm about his music that’s refreshing in a profession often marked by supercoolness and superegos.

“I [don’t] just think as a leader, but as a producer, or … as a member of the rhythm section,” he points out. “For instance, when I’m a side man in someone else’s band — and I know I’m not the leader … and I’m not the featured soloist — my mind is still thinking, ‘Well, what makes the most musical sense at this particular moment? What does this moment need?’ … What I’ve learned from mentors and other musicians that I respect is that the piano functions as a part of the rhythm section. You complement the music, the mood — that’s what they mean by ‘comping.’ If you’re not comping, then you’re in the way.”

The offspring of a Jamaican mother and Pakistani father, Milne grew up in Montreal, listening to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. But he fell off the Woodstock wagon when he received some recordings by Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington and McCoy Tyner. Milne suspects his connection with jazz was “some sort of ancestral calling.” Whether ancestral calling or divine intervention, he plunged deeply into the genre and eventually graduated with honors from the York University music program in Toronto, where he studied under his hero, Oscar Peterson (among other jazz notables). The year he graduated, Milne received a grant to study music at the esteemed Banff Center for Fine Arts, where he encountered composer/sax genius Steve Coleman.

“I had never heard of [Coleman],” Milne reports. “But he started asking all of us what it was we really wanted to do in music. He encouraged us to think critically, not just about music but life. A lot of people didn’t want to do that.”

Milne did. He looks back with awe at that Zen-like time at Banff (located deep in the Canadian Rockies), where he learned the intricacies of the music to which he’s dedicated his life.

“That whole scene was so intense for me,” he recalls. “It was probably the most intense learning period of my life. It was only four weeks, but it was one hell of a four-week period. … On top of [the music studies], being in the natural environment … was a beautiful experience. I went out there with a really open attitude. I took my bicycle with me and cycled in the mountains and absorbed a lot of what was around. The circumstances were right for me at that time. They had practice modules — shacks just big enough to hold a baby grand — behind the main building, and you’d practice and play. [Then you’d] walk out the door, and there’d be an elk standing just outside.”

Coleman’s potent protege eventually joined him in the critically acclaimed group, Steve Coleman & 5 Elements, before launching the solo career that’s taken him across America and Europe and made him a staple in New York City jazz clubs.

As Jazz Times magazine recently put it, “Milne masterfully surfs the aural ocean on waves of funk and swing. … Andy Milne thrills. He’s a definite comer.”

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