Q&A: Jazz pianist Andy Milne talks using homeopathy to write music, working with William Shatner, and more

In jazz, pianists tend to be the logic builders, the consolidators of ideas, the synthesis people. Your stereotypical pianist is pensive, professorial, more omnivorous than opinionated. Often that gets you typecast into a supporting role. And in a way, that's Andy Milne's story: Over the past 20 years, he's helped till the careers of famous experimenters like Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman, and Ravi Coltrane, but his music—especially the heady, swaggering, astral jazz-funk that he plays with his band Dapp Theory—still awaits wide recognition.

This Saturday, Milne makes his debut as a leader at An Die Musik, bringing Dapp Theory along with five special guests. (All are heavyweights, including guitarist Ben Monder, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and vocalist La Tanya Hall.) The extended ensemble will be playing Milne's new suite, "Seasons of Being," which he's debuting in three cities this week. It explores the alternative medicinal approach of homeopathy, and how this might be a tool to deepen the bond between musicians.

As he explains in the interview below, Milne worked with his homeopathic practitioner to design a series of questions that would diagnose each musician's core "pathology," according to homeopathic strategies. Then he composed the music with that in mind, writing one piece for each musician in the group. The expectation often falls on jazz improvisers to personalize the material that the bandleader puts in front of them—rarely is it written for them specifically. Rarer still does the music try to consider players' entire mental and physical bearing, rather than just their style or their sound.

The "Seasons of Being" project is quintessentially Milne: outré, ambitious, unperturbed by your skepticism. And, if his past work with Dapp Theory is any guide, it'll probably be as bracing and energetic as it is esoteric. (There's no recorded evidence yet—the group will hit the studio immediately after this week's mini tour.)

Milne has kept a quiet perch on New York's jazz vanguard since the mid-'90s. Originally from Canada, he took up early on with Coleman, Wilson, and the rest of the so-called M-BASE collective—precocious experimentalists interested in pan-African philosophy, various forms of spirituality, and integrative approaches to rhythm and harmony.

Milne continues to expand on that foundation, and his work has taken him across a wide field—from Dapp Theory to an album of abstract duets with fellow pianist Benoit Delbecq to soundtracks for William Shatner movies. We spoke about all that, as well as this Saturday's upcoming performance, in an interview earlier this week.

City Paper: Ever since "New Age of Aquarius," your 1999 album, you and Dapp Theory have been investigating ways of using rhythm to bend people's minds and their bodies at the same time. What was the original concept for the band?

Andy Milne: I think at the time, in the mid to late '90s, I was hearing a lot of music in the R&B and pop realms that blended melodic material with hip-hop and rap. I was interested in seeing how I could approach that—but not from an R&B or rap background. That cover of the Joni Mitchell tune ['Free Man in Paris' on "New Age of Aquarius"] was the beginning of what I ended up doing—it had a rapper and a vocalist. I did one tour where I did the vocals and the rapper and the harmonica at the same time, and that was the starting point of that, exploring that.

CP: How did that blend of elements open up new ways of interacting, both with the other musicians onstage and with listeners?

AM: In my earlier editions of my band, there was a vocalist—and I came from cutting my teeth in Toronto and Montreal and New York, where I was working with a lot of vocalists. I worked with Cassandra Wilson when I first moved to New York. There was this whole thread of the human voice—how people respond to it, and also what language can add to music. That was the dawn of that investigation for me. I was open to whatever form the voice might take—singing, or speaking, or whatever combination.

CP: Now, more than 15 years in, how has Dapp Theory grown over time, and served as a flexible vessel for your work?

AM: The current edition has really blossomed, partly because there haven't been any personnel changes since 2010. But also I think that over the last 10 years I've been less inhibited about writing and exploring other creative opportunities, and if I have a creative idea, just running with it. Fifteen years ago I would say, "This doesn't sound like it can work in Dapp Theory," and I'd discard it or table it. And then as I started doing more different things, like working in a duo with [harmonica player] Gregoire Maret, and a solo project, and then a duo with Benoit Delbecq, and a thing with a tap dancer. These things just gave me more ideas. And then as things shifted, much of that material ended up back in Dapp Theory.

This edition of the band lends itself to all of those other things. I can go back and forth between acoustic and electric bass; I can go back and forth between hard-hitting drums and more coloristic textural things; with the voice I have the option of whether it'll be more in-your-face or ethereal. And with the saxophonist, he's playing the duduk as well as the saxophone, so I have this huge palette that I'm able to draw from.

This project premiering on Saturday, there's even more musicians, so even more options. That flexibility is really there now, much more so than 10 years ago.

CP: You've worked a lot with singers, but you also work pretty often with rappers. What do you like about the cadence of the voice in music? I presume it doesn't hurt that the piano is a cadence-oriented instrument too.

AM: They have to breathe, like a horn player, but in a succession of words and thoughts. I like that because with an improviser like [D.C.-based emcee] Kokayi, it's a different reading point—it cuts across language and thought lines in a different way from horn players. Horn players can cram more information in. It's a slightly different pacing.

It's harder to remind yourself to play with a vocal sensibility as a pianist, because breathing isn't something that we physically have to do, in terms of creating sound. But on an emotional level and also on a feeling and phrasing level, we do still have to do that.

CP: There's certainly something healing about music, and about certain types of rhythm specifically. And that’s at the core of what you're doing with this project, "Seasons of Being." Explain how the concept for this project took root.

AM: It took root because I was seeing a homeopathic healer and sometimes he would talk to me and try to use musical analogies in civilian speak. I would say okay, I get your point. [laughs] But it led me to think, I wonder if there's something in this way of looking at a person, and if there's something in the whole concept of homeopathy that I could potentially apply to music. In a way, I was envisioning a full person engaged in music, and a musical idea.

I've had a lot of experiences as a sideman where it's like, "Okay, you're gonna take a solo here, but it's not written necessarily for you specifically. It's just, this is the moment for you to take a solo." Combined with that was the fact that in some of my earlier attempts to bring musicians into the mix I didn't know exactly how to get the best out of them and their sound. So I was looking at, how would I tailor this experience using the methods of homeopathy? It's basically looking at people through an emotional lens and trying to understand how they work.

These musicians are people I'm close to, but there are things I might not have known or wouldn't have wanted to probe on. I made this test that I could then take to this homeopath and have him help me analyze them and understand what their pathology would be, in homeophatic diagnostics. Obviously the person was not there in person with the homeopath, but a lot of the things that came out seemed very spot-on, based on how they responded to the music. These questions wouldn't seem to have much meaning on the surface—but to a homeopathic healer they have meaning. The average person would say, "Why do you want to know if I'm attracted to thunderstorms?" But by doing all that, I was able to pair that up with some of the music that I know they like and they play, and how I know these people as friends.

We were joking about it after rehearsal today—one band member was saying, "So these are my resonant chords?" I said, "Well I dunno how do you feel now?" He said, "I feel pretty good!” [laughs]

I had to be careful because I noticed myself getting very preoccupied between the homeopathic information that I was uncovering and translating that into notes and pitches, and at a certain point I said, "I just need to write the music. This ultimately can become counter-intuitive."

CP: You worked with William Shatner, writing and performing the soundtrack for his documentary "The Captains." It's funny that apparently you were a big Star Trek fan going in, unbeknownst to the folks that invited you into the project. How did that all come about and develop?

AM: I was working with Avery Brooks, a vocalist and pianist. I'd met Avery in '94 when he was the artistic director of the Atlanta Black Arts Festival. Then when Shatner was doing this film, he was flying around interviewing the five people that came after him [playing the captain on "Star Trek"]. In his interview with Avery [who played Captain Sisko on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine"] there was a piano there, and it just became Avery sitting at the piano and him and Shatner just talking. The whole theme of it was music and improvisation. So at the end of the day, Shatner said to Avery, "I'm thinking about the music for the film and I think I kind of want just riffing and improvisation." And Avery's first response was, "I have your guy."

They were doing production with this company in Canada, and it was like, "We should really have a Canadian composer." So it was perfect that I happened to be Canadian. Avery called me and said, "We're doing his thing with Mr. Shatner, would you be interested in doing the music?" I said sure, then I didn't hear from him for about a year. Eventually he put me in touch with the producer, who called me the next day, and in 24 hours I was on a conference call with Shatner and the producer. We kind of quickly agreed that we could do whatever this was. And then they just kind of took a leap of faith on trusting Avery in trusting me. They went for it. And I flew out to L.A. and composed and recorded the score in two days. What he wanted me to do was improvise the entire score. The film at that time was very hard to follow because it wasn't fully edited. But I played for over two hours and then he realized, okay, maybe we need to identify where we want music. [laughs]

Then from that experience, Shatner grew to like me and trust me and when he decided to do additional films that were coming, he got me involved. I've done seven with him in total.

CP: So okay, what is Shatner like? Is he the Shatner we think he is all the time?

AM: I've had lots of candid moments with him just hanging, having a drink. He's always thinking, processing, planning the next thing. One thing about working with him that was very interesting is, he always wants to know what's going on, but as long as he feels like someone in the room that he trusts knows what's going on, he's good. It's like the captain: If I know Scottie is taking care of this it's all in hand. The first time we worked together, he didn't know me. But now we’re cool.

He's very intense. I was with him a while ago at an awards ceremony. We were talking and he was coming up with this totally new idea. Then he went onstage 15 minutes later and started talking about what we had just been talking about. With all the clichés and the Shatnerisms that people know, there's a very quick mind in there. It's been a pretty cool experience for sure.

Andy Milne & Dapp Theory play An die Musick on Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

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