Pianist Andy Milne Explores Creative Collaborations at U-M

After beating cancer, the jazz artist is finding his groove in Ann Arbor
andy milne
Juno-winning jazz pianist Andy Milne is pouring his creative energy into his teaching role at University of Michigan. // Photograph by Anna Yaskevich

Jazz pianist Andy Milne has had a very busy two and a half years. In 2017, the Toronto-area native was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had surgery. In 2018, he recorded the album The Seasons of Being with his band Dapp Theory; it was the same year he took the job of assistant professor of music, jazz, and contemporary improvisation at the University of Michigan, beginning a move from New York City, where he had lived since the early 1990s. Then, in 2019, The Seasons of Being earned a Juno Award — Canada’s Grammy equivalent — for Jazz Album of the Year by a group.

“It was pretty busy,” Milne says, now looking relaxed in the office-studio of his rental home on the southeast side of Ann Arbor. “I was also teaching in New York … and I was recovering from all this cancer stuff. So, it was a pretty insane period of my life.”

During that time, he also started a new trio featuring drummer Clarence Penn and bassist John Hébert, composing stripped-down music that is the opposite of Dapp Theory’s fractured-funk polyphony, which features a multitude of instruments and voices. The trio released its debut album, the contemplative The reMission, in April and had planned a tour for May, which the coronavirus pandemic wiped out.

But Milne sounds sanguine about the tour’s cancellation, and he’s using this time to settle into his still-new life in Michigan with his wife, the singer and Oberlin College and Conservatory educator La Tanya Hall.

“It’s only now that I’m getting comfortable and feeling like I have a life here,” he says. “I guess for me, what comes along with that sense of comfort is just thinking about other possibilities, thinking about new endeavors, and getting to know how those things would take place.”

“I guess for me, what comes along with that sense of comfort is just thinking about other possibilities, thinking about new endeavors, and getting to know how those things would take place.”

— Andy Milne

Some of those new things, Milne says, might include forming a project with Michigan-based musicians, including colleagues at the university, playing out more in Detroit and Ann Arbor, and catching more concerts in the area. But Milne’s main focus when he moved to the Midwest was navigating the University of Michigan, not immediately establishing the same creative routine he had in New York City.

“I realized when I came here, my primary focus was like, ‘Oh, I’m coming to Ann Arbor to take this teaching position and really embrace a role in the university community,’ both within [the school of] music, theater, and dance and just exploring where my path and where my place would be in the university,” he says. “So, I’ve been collaborating with faculty and researchers in different areas of the university for public health and these kinds of things. I’m finding where my zone will be inside of that.”

Combining music with other disciplines has long informed Milne’s work, including Dapp Theory’s The Seasons of Being, which coalesced around ideas he learned while treating his cancer with homeopathy, and the documentary soundtracks he’s composed for Capt. Kirk himself, William Shatner. (The reMission’s “Vertical on Opening Night” is named after something Shatner said in one doc.)

Being at a large research university like Michigan means Milne can continue to explore cross-disciplinary creativity, all in a town he finds welcoming and easy to navigate.

“I think it’s probably just the proximity of everything,” Milne says of Ann Arbor. “The fact that I’m living close to my work, and people are super-friendly here, and there’s great restaurants. I mean, it’s a really livable city, and I’ve been able to get out and enjoy riding my bike and exploring neighborhoods and things like that. I like the feeling here.”