For the majority of my career, I’ve composed music, largely for ensembles I lead or co-lead. During my early years playing in Steve Coleman’s bands, I occasionally had the opportunity to compose for his groups. Aside from the musical rewards of developing one’s voice within Steve’s universe, it was also gratifying to be in a band– not just by name in the generic sense–, but also to be able to contribute beyond one’s instrumental (or vocal) role.
While thinking about what I wanted to explore for this article, it occurred to me that one of the things that I think about when pondering the subject of composition in jazz, is the contemporary role and function of composition and the composer. There was a time in the somewhat distant chronology of jazz, where there was a universally shared repertoire, typically referred to as “standards.” Of course, there were also the great bands performing the works of their celebrated leaders: Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus, to name a few. We are of course aware that many jazz musicians during the 30s, 40s and 50s composed their own pieces, but I wonder if all of them identified as “composers” in the same spirit that so many musicians active on the scene do today. When I think of a bandleader like Art Blakey, I think of all the composers he mentored by virtue of leading a “band” with a culture that supported a different kind of community, one that often appears absent in so many of our current leader/composer ensembles (my own included.) Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter and Donald Brown all come to mind as exemplary illustrations of how the band/community culture of the 50s and 60s helped to foster distinct voices, stylistic diversity and deeply refined personal compositional aesthetics.
Considering that one of the more distinguished aspects of jazz is the pivotal role of collective and individual improvisation, it is interesting how composition has increasingly received more and more airtime within our contemporary jazz discourse. It is particularly interesting when examined within the larger public discussions surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion, and within the music education conversations around creating parity for African-American and other non-Western European traditions. In some ways, it seems that creating new works has become the great incentivizer, despite the fact that every time we perform a piece of music with improvisation at its core, we are creating new works. Perhaps the emergence of service organizations and foundations offering commissioning opportunities and grants for composers has contributed to what appears, to me on the surface, as a profound shift. Especially when compared to the relationship to composition versus arrangement and/or interpretation in the 1960s. Of course, it is undisputed that Ornette Coleman, Thad Jones, Dave Brubeck and Mary-Lou Williams were all prolific composers. What interests me is how might they have regarded their roles as composers, relative to their identities as performers/improvisers and artists as a whole.
I recently had the pleasure of moderating a conversation between my students and Sir Ron Carter. It was fascinating to hear him reflect on the time in his life when he did four or five record dates a week. He described how it was quite normal to arrive at the studio and be faced with the reality that the bandleader didn’t necessarily have an entire album’s worth of material. According to Carter, very often the solution was to solicit original material from the side musicians, sometimes in advance, sometimes at the session. I can only surmise how this everyday occurrence probably contributed to the appearance of so many compositions by Andrew Hill, Joe Henderson, Joe Chambers, or Harold Land on the recordings of Bobby Hutcherson for example. With so much recording happening during this prolific period in the history of jazz, labels, producers, and performers were perhaps more amenable to improvising over compositional sketches, versus polished, semi through-composed, multi-page arrangements.
Thinking back to how my compositions found their way onto Steve Coleman’s recordings in the early 1990s, the culture wasn’t quite like that described by Ron Carter, nor that of Art Blakley’s bands, but perhaps somewhere in between. At that time, the members of the band identified with being integral members of a tight knit group and the music that we all contributed to these recordings (“The Tao of Mad Phat” and “Drop Kick” in particular) reflected our artistic, cultural and personal relationships with one another. Not long after this, Steve began to explore compositional structures that in part, were directly linked to mathematical representations of the musicians’ astrology. In essence, we were given material that was constructed to formulate a personal and scientific resonance. Part of Steve’s role as composer was to determine how to combine these very personal structures. At the time, I struggled as an improviser to make the translation from the more familiar musical constructs using vertical harmonic structures, rhythmic melodies and pitch-based melodies, to these new compositional frameworks.
I’ll fast forward about 15 years to 2010 when I became curious with creating music that harnessed individual musicians’ emotional DNA as source material for the composition. By this time, I had been leading various bands and projects for about 20 years and had developed a compositional voice through an enduring commitment to writing for these groups. I also had numerous sideman experiences performing other bandleaders’ compositions, AND some distance perspective from my very immersive 10 years performing with Steve Coleman. What emerged was a fascination with why we, as performers, often experience differing degrees of synchronicity with the material to which we’re asked to contribute improvised solos and interpretations. Simply put, I was somewhat obsessed with why any one of us was or wasn’t “feeling it”, AND how I might be able to short circuit these invisible preferences and optimize my compositions for specific performers. Although not terribly practical from the point of view of having modular flexibility for selecting musicians, it was for me, the flipside to what I had experienced with Steve Coleman back in the mid-1990s.
My inquiry, which ultimately included an examination of homeopathy and neuroscience, yielded several rearrangements of my existing compositions, as well as an entirely new project and recording, “The Seasons of Being,” released in 2018. At first, I was determined to develop a mathematical formula for translating the emotional profiles I was uncovering about my musicians into personalized pitch sets and rhythmic codes. I eventually opted to direct my findings into sound and texture impressions that mirrored the essence of what was being revealed as the musician’s “sonic remedy.”
Without getting overly technical, as I reflect upon this period of artistic inquiry, my mind is drawn to some interesting universal themes that emerge which I want share. As a music educator, I both mentor and witness how the infatuation with composition is, to some degree, inseparable with other current social trends. Namely, self-promotion, credit-less appropriation and an insatiable desire for envelope pushing. On the surface, the idea of pushing boundaries and encouraging innovation are cornerstones for nearly all artists and are certainly forces which have fueled the most important evolutions in music and jazz specifically. What’s the problem with innovating? Nothing really. I am a bit little less merciful with regard to self-promotion and credit-less appropriation as I find these two trends to be particularly disheartening as we survey the human, cultural and environmental toll of the past 25 years of global digital economic expansion. We are at a point where the Marxist “means of production” are within reach of an ever-increasing demographic. With this newfound democratization for creating and publishing “content,” comes a responsibility — a stewardship — which I, frankly, rarely if ever hear discussed.
My intent here is not to be a downer. I sincerely hope that, embedded within the revelations of Covid-19, there will be a commitment to create meaningful art that is respectful of the sacrifices of past generations; innovative, not just for the sake of stroking oneself on the back in a myopic spirit of being innovative; and an expression of humanism, honesty and integrity. There are jazz academies in almost every corner of the globe, many emphasizing the mastery of technique over the study of culture, community and the aesthetic intersections of the individual and the collective. I believe we have a responsibility to uphold HOW and WHY this music came to be, not just WHAT, and by WHOM. It is, of course, very inspiring to hear the amazing creations of so many capable and talented artists who are presenting exceptional musical works for all to enjoy. I just hope we remember that not every piece needs to be released, not every moment needs to be captured and shared, and spending equal amounts of time celebrating those who are no longer with us isn’t abdicating one’s creative responsibilities but rather contributing to an embodiment of refining one’s understanding of self. Community engagement and the uplifting of others can yield great artistic magic. As improvisers, we experience this every day. In a way, I’m motivated to express these ideas as a reminder to myself as I re-emerge into a post-Covid scene.
Hang, honor, hold-space
About the Author:
For 30 years, two-time Juno Award winning pianist/composer Andy Milne has demonstrated boundless versatility, collaborating with dancers, visual artists, poets and musicians spanning multiple genres. A fearless improviser and respected voice at the heart of New York’s creative jazz scene, he has recorded and toured throughout the world with Ravi Coltrane, Ralph Alessi, Carlos Ward and Carla Cook, and has collaborated with a range of artists including Andrew Cyrille, Sekou Sundiata, Avery Brooks, Bruce Cockburn, Fred Hersch, Ben Monder, Dianne Reeves, Jen Shyu, Tyshawn Sorey and Jamie Baum. A former student of Oscar Peterson, Milne was at the center of the M-BASE Collective as a core member of saxophonist Steve Coleman’s bands in the 1990s, performing frequently with Cassandra Wilson and Greg Osby. After a formative apprenticeship with Coleman, Milne stepped out on his own to conquer his own musical frontiers, eventually forming his longstanding quintet Dapp Theory in 1998. Milne has composed and produced seven film scores for William Shatner and has released 11 recordings as a leader or co-leader.
In 2017, Enriched with creative insights from his multiple projects, Milne formed his latest group, UNISON, to return to his first love, exploring the intimacy of the piano trio. The synchronistic relationship Milne has enjoyed with bassist John Hébert since 2010 is matchlessly rounded out with drummer Clarence Penn, who represents complimentary threads within the fabric of Milne’s piano trio philosophy — the intersection of texture and groove. In 2020, Sunnyside Records released UNISON’s debut, “The reMission” which won the 2021 JUNO Award for Jazz Album of the Year: Group and has also received widespread media praise.
Milne’s most ambitious project, The Seasons of Being, showcases a 10-piece ensemble featuring Dapp Theory, plus five distinguished guest improvisers. Commissioned by Chamber Music America, the music explores the body, spirit and mind on music, using the diagnostic principles of homeopathy to captivate the emotional characterization of each soloist. It premiered at Millersville University and Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2015. The recording, released on Sunnyside Records in 2018 was awarded the 2019 Juno Award for Jazz Album of the Year:Group. This special project follows the dynamic 2014 Dapp Theory release Forward in all Directions, produced by multi-Grammy winner, Jimmy Haslip.
In 2014, with support from The Japan Foundation and New Music USA, Milne premiered Strings & Serpents at Lincoln Center. The interdisciplinary collaboration combines two pianos and two kotos, with animation depicting The Rainbow Serpent Mythology. A synthesis of Japanese and Western structures in terms of melody, form, improvisational language and rhythm, the work merges musical and visual forms into a unified experience. Strings & Serpents will release their debut recording and tour North America in 2018.
In 2011, Milne composed, performed and produced the score to William Shatner’s documentary film, The Captains. The relationship led to Milne scoring six subsequent Star Trek-themed films directed by Shatner. In addition to appearing in one of the films, Milne released The Captains soundtrack CD in partnership with Shatner and was a featured performer at numerous Star Trek conventions with actor/singer Avery Brooks. During this period, Milne attended the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute at UCLA under the direction of George Lewis, and in 2013 was invited to compose for the American Composers Orchestra’s JCOI New Music Readings.
Milne’s early Dapp Theory recordings helped forge a foundation for the creative diversity he would explore in subsequent projects. Forming Dapp Theory in 1998, Milne cited his desire to “tell passionate stories, promote peace and inspire collective responsibility towards uplifting the human spiritual condition.” Milne used rhythm to bend listeners’ minds and bodies, mixed R&B, jazz, rock, pop and hip-hop influences, and incorporated free-style and composed lyrics to promote a profound sense of social commentary within the music. One of the most compelling expressions of these ingredients was Milne’s ambitious collaboration with Canadian folk-rock icon Bruce Cockburn on the 2003 Concord Records release, Y’all Just Don’t Know.
In 2008, Milne was awarded the French-America Jazz Exchange from Chamber Music America and formed Crystal Magnets, a duo piano collaboration with French pianist Benoît Delbecq. Inspired by the 5.0 surround sound format, Milne set out to compose for the medium and record in harmony with that environment. During their recording residency at The Banff Centre, Milne and Delbecq exploited the unique potential for placing specific compositional elements in distinct regions of the surround sound mix. In 2009, Songlines Recordings released Where is Pannonica?, which The New York Times lauded as a “strangely beautiful new album” from two “resourcefully contemporary pianists, both drawn to quixotic interrogations of harmony and timbre.”
Milne released two unique piano recordings in 2007. Both CDs received wide critical acclaim, presenting complementary reflections of his questing musical personality. Dreams and False Alarms [SongLines] features deeply considered re-workings of longremembered pop/rock/folk/reggae classics, reaffirming and expanding Milne’s creative process as a jazz improviser. Scenarios [Obliqsound] presents a more textural, almost cinematic series of intimate duo encounters with harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret. Their duo developed naturally during Maret’s four years as a member of Dapp Theory. Also in 2007, Milne collaborated with tap dancer/choreographer Heather Cornell to create Finding Synesthesia, which premiered that year at the London Jazz Festival. Together they combined a wide and unexpected range of sounds and influences, integrally weaving tap into the texture and sound of the orchestration.
Milne is a Yamaha Artist and sought-after educator, serving as an assistant professor of music at The University of Michigan and the Assistant-Director at The School for Improvisational Music.