Where the worlds of jazz and hip-hop meet, yielding free-flowing improvisation and hard-hitting rhythmic edges — that’s where you’ll find Andy Milne.
The Canadian-born pianist has spent the majority of his 33 years perfecting his craft, to the point of being called a likely heir to pianists like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. Through his work with Steve Coleman and the creative forces of the New York City-based M-BASE collective, Milne began to include influences from sociology, philosophy and science fiction in his work. On his Cosmic Dapp Theory’s release, New Age of Aquarius (Contrology 1999), he mines the mystical powers of music and verse.
Milne began piano lessons at age 7, at first caught up in classical music. “I studied it as a kid, and I don’t think it will ever stop influencing me. It shapes you. You can’t really escape what you’ve been through, although I don’t sit and work on the classical repertoire. I began to hear jazz at an early age too, but I was also hearing all the music that my siblings were listening to — James Brown, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. I always knew I wanted to be a musician, but I didn’t understand it all at the time,” he says. “I don’t think you can understand the challenges and rewards of that way of life at a young age.”
The keyboardist grew up with his family near Toronto, went to school at York University (studying with Oscar Peterson, Pat LaBarbera and Don Thompson), and was part of that city’s music scene.
“I suppose it became a very serious thing when I was 18: Are you going to go the university or just go play? Or, can you play? If you go to the university, what are you going to study? The decision was pretty clear, but at that time, you start to learn what’s really involved in a career. The life.” He received a Canada Council grant to study at Banff Center for Fine Arts, and there met and was inspired by the musical concepts of faculty head Steve Coleman.
Milne aspired to play like piano greats Thelonius Monk, Herbie Nichols, Art Tatum, Hancock, and a contemporary, Geri Allen. “I was all edgy, and wanted to be playing stronger,” he recalls.
After working in Montreal for a year as a sideman with Joe Lovano, Archie Shepp and Ranee Lee, Milne packed up and moved to New York City in 1991. “That was a huge move for me,” he reveals. “I was in hopes of working with Steve Coleman. We’d known each other for a while, and he had asked me to do one gig with him in New York.” The keyboardist wound up staying with Coleman for five years. He performed with Coleman’s Five Elements on the M-BASE collective CD Anatomy of a Groove (DIW/Columbia, 1993) and was invited to perform with M-BASE associates Cassandra Wilson and Greg Osby. In 1992, he officially joined Five Elements, and was an integral part of that and Coleman’s other groups till 1997, as well as a featured performer and composer on ten of Coleman’s albums — from Drop Kick (Novus, 1992) to The Opening of the Way (BMG France, 1997).
In 1995, Milne recorded a self-produced cassette, The ‘E’ Is Silent, with a group that featured drummer Gene Lake (of Meshell Ndegeocello’s band). He released his first solo CD in 1997, Forward to get Back (d’Note), with vocalist Robin Dixon, bassist Reggie Washington, drummer Mark Prince, and Steve Coleman on alto sax. And then, in ’98, he founded the Cosmic Dapp Theory “to tell passionate stories, promote peace and inspire collective responsibility towards uplifting the human spiritual condition.”
New Age of Aquarius is a tasty, exotic mix of spoken-word and music featuring harmonica player Gregoire Maret, hip-hop and R&B vocalist Vinia Mojica, bassist Rich Brown, and rapper Kokayi.
“It’s not like I had to have rap. It just so happens I like the way this guy does what he does,” Milne insists. “He’s a powerful musician.” Once again, the fascinating rhythmic landscapes are steered by drummer Mark Prince. “Mark didn’t have a lot of experience when he first joined the band,” Milne explains. “He’s gotten much stronger. Not that he wasn’t talented, but he just wasn’t experienced. Teaching is overdone. You just have to learn a lot of it as you go through.”
As an independent artist who does the band’s bookings, marketing, and sets up his own interviews, Milne has become savvy about the music business.
“I handle too much of it,” he sighs. “Guys can be fickle, and a lot of times the first question [potential bandmates] ask you is how much it’ll be paying. It’s difficult to put a band together and hold a band together that way. To me, it’s not about having a lot of really big-name guys, because it’s hard to make a band out of that. I think I heard Phil Woods say once, ‘If you can do something else, do it. You should do music because you can’t do anything else.’ I don’t know if I agree with that completely, but I understand the spirit in which he said it. It’s not something that somebody should do [who] doesn’t have patience to take the time to develop. I just think it screws the music up when guys don’t take the time to develop. People expect magical things to happen, and expect things to be done for them. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Milne’s been touring of late with saxman Ravi Coltrane (as in son of John), and working with fellow Canadian Bruce Cockburn on an album project. “I’ve always been a fan of Bruce’s work, musically and lyrically,” he says. “The leap of bringing Bruce’s voice and poetry into the jazz/hip-hop world of Cosmic Dapp Theory is proving to be as natural as I’d hoped.” Milne’s commitment to the music of Cosmic Dapp Theory is apparent in the swirling textures of his latest album’s opening song, “It Takes a Village.”
“We tend to only hear music one way, and get caught up in the way we were brought up hearing it. There are a lot of other ways of approaching music, in terms of making it groove,” he muses. “Music’s a powerful thing. It can really get under people’s skin.”