Dave Milligan | Pianist, Composer, Musical Director & Educator

Dave Milligan

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Musical Diversions

Okay, I suppose this is what happens when you don’t post anything on your own website for 22 months, but much has happened in that time and there’s a lot to tell…

First up, String Sisters. I’ve been playing with this group since 2001. Our first concert was at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival and while the gigs have been somewhat sporadic over the years that followed (only 4 of the 10 musicians in the band live in Scotland; the rest are scattered between Sweden, Norway, Ireland and the US), things have been a little busier of late. Last year, we recorded our 2nd album, Between Wind And Water – it was released in February of this year, and we’re off out to do some gigs to celebrate:

May 24-27: Orkney Folk Festival (tickets & info)
May 29: Eden Court Theatre, Inverness (tickets & info)
May 30: Queens Hall, Edinburgh (tickets & info)
May 31: Cecil Sharp House, London (tickets & info)

 

Next is the Colin Steele Quintet. This is also a group I’ve been playing with for the best part of 20 years. Last year saw the release of the quintet’s 4th album Even In The Darkest Places, and joining Colin and the ever-present-yours-truly are Michael Buckley (saxophones), Calum Gourlay (bass) and Stu Ritchie (drums). You can hear and/or buy the album here, or hear the story behind the recording in Colin’s own words by watching the video.

We did some beautiful gigs last month in Scotland, mainly west coast but with an appearance at Aberdeen Jazz Festival to boot. We have one more coming up in the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on July 21st… you know what to do.

Shortly after making Even In The Darkest Places, I went in to the studio with Colin again to make a quartet album, this time with Calum Gourlay on bass and Alyn Cosker on Drums. The result was Colin Steele Quartet Diving For Pearls.

 

Colin was approached by the Marina record label to consider recording an album of jazz versions of the songs of the Pearlfishers. He’d actually played on many sessions with them before, and shares many similar tastes in music with the Pearlfishers’ David Scott. The original brief was to record with Colin’s quintet, but he was quickly very sure that he didn’t hear the sound of saxophone as part of this project.

Colin and I talked through how the arrangements might work, then spent an afternoon playing through the tunes. All of the guys in the band are extremely busy, so we only found one afternoon to run through these tunes as a group, before going in to record for a single day. We recorded 2 takes of pretty much everything and almost every tune that ended up on the album was the 2nd take, with the exception of ‘You’ll Never Steal my Spirit’ which came out great on the first time of playing. It’s an album I like very much; you can get it from the usual outlets (iTunes, Amazon etc) – go check it out.

We’ll be playing the music of this album at Glasgow Jazz Festival on June 21st. See you there? Wonderful.

 

One other thing I’ve been meaning to post about for a while is a project that’s a little outside my normal world… Produced by The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and The Old Vic, London, I’m very excited to be working as music supervisor on the world premiere of Local Hero, a musical stage production based on the hit 1983 film of the same name. With the stage adaptation and book co-written by The Lyceum’s Artistic Director David Greig, the production will bring together some of Scotland’s greatest artistic talents, including multi-award winning director and writer Bill Forsyth, and acclaimed composer and producer Mark Knopfler – founder of internationally celebrated band Dire Straits, whose album Brothers in Arms is one of the top 20 highest selling albums in UK history. It’s been a hugely enjoyable experience working with Mark on the original score over the last few years, and it’s finally all starting to come together!

The Lyceum’s Artistic Director David Greig says:
Local Hero is one of those great Scottish stories that has captured the imaginations of people across the world, it has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it as a teenager.

To have the chance to revisit these wonderful characters to help create a musical is an absolute delight, but to be working alongside Bill Forsyth and Mark Knopfler to bring this to The Lyceum and Old Vic stages is a dream come true –it really feels like the stars have aligned!”

The Old Vic’s Artistic Director Matthew Warchus says:
“Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero is high on my list of all-time favourite films. I have watched and re-watched it many, many times and never tire of its perfect mixture of situation comedy and romance, combined with a strong and important message. I’m absolutely delighted to be collaborating with the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and this first-class creative team on what promises to be an unmissable stage adaptation.”

Local Hero is due to open at The Lyceum in Spring 2019 before transferring to The Old Vic.

Technical problems… please wait

And… we’re up and running again!

Not usually one for posting about technical complaints, but just a quick line about the fact that the website has been off line for the last two months. The hosting account was hacked in March, and the hosting provider – JustHost.com – were simply unable to provide any kind of solution or support. All in all, a staggering display of incompetence and completely neglectful customer care. Not keen on naming and shaming, but if I can save anyone the trauma of ever having to deal with this company, then that’s something.

However, after several unspeakably frustrating weeks, a new hosting provider and much rebuilding, here we are. Website’s back on line. Yes, yes, I know you can see that my last post was almost 2 years ago. But we’re here now aren’t we? *coughs*

Got some lovely gigs coming up – will write about those soon. In the meantime, take a look at the dates… Hope to see you somewhere…

A Scotsman, two Italians and a Russian walk into a bar…

In a few days time I will perform a solo piano gig at the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. It’s kind of a first for me. 

Not the solo thing (although they’re something of a rare occurrence) – but it’s really the first gig that I’ll have done under my own name since – well, since a few things changed for me.

It’s been a significant year in many ways. On a personal level there’s been some major shifts. Some devastating, some positive.

But musically speaking, I now find myself on a slightly different path. Does it sound different? In some ways it does to me – it certainly feels different. And I’m not sure if I can articulate precisely what that is, but I’ll have a go at explaining why…

A little over a year and a half ago, I received an Artists’ Bursary from Creative Scotland. The aim was – over the space of a year – to take some time out to rethink, develop, practice and explore new music. But from all that happened in my ‘year of learning’, I did two things in particular that made a big impact on me: A recording session in Italy, and two days studying with Misha Alperin in Norway…

In June 2015, I travelled to Cavalicco in the Italian province of Udine, where I had booked three days in the incredible Artesuono recording studio with master engineer Stefano Amerio.

I invited bassist Danilo Gallo and drummer U.T. Gandhi to join me for what I really intended to be an experiment. These are two musicians whose playing I adore, and I was very excited to play some music with them – but I didn’t want the familiar pressure of producing an album. Before we started I told them that if we didn’t even record one complete track, that was fine – it was just about the process. It was a personal process for me, about letting go and being in the moment. We played for two days and recorded everything, and spent the final day listening and mixing. Ironically, we ended up with over twenty decent takes; some of the music was completely improvised, some were original compositions and some were improvisations based on folk songs.

Something changed for me over those few days – not so much in terms of my musical vocabulary or technique, but in terms of where the music comes from in performance, and allowing it to flow. Stefano recorded the whole session so incredibly beautifully and it turned out to be something I’m very proud of. (I intend to release some of this music as an album in the near future). But listening to that session a year on, it strikes me almost as a kind of travelogue of the musical journeys I’ve taken since I started playing music. I suddenly hear an array of voices that have influenced me over the years, some quite blatant, others less so.

Somewhere in there, however, is my own voice. I’m certainly not claiming it’s original, but I want to recognise it as something that’s personal and my own. It’s almost a little uncomfortable to notice the points in the recordings where it drifts in (and out again), but the point of what I’m striving for here is to get comfortable with it. If I’m honest, I can identify some of the pieces we recorded – whilst not unpleasing to the ear – as quite generic and evocative of lots of music I’ve listened to in my life; and somehow that in itself is starting to feel uncomfortable. I think a lot of jazz and improvising musicians regard the emulation of others as a form of accomplishment. “Yeah, man – you sound like Herbie!” or “Wow, you play great – you’ve really got that Brecker sound!” And so on and so forth… All well and good – copying is partly how we develop as musicians, and adopting styles is part of bearing a tradition. But as I hear some of those characteristics in my own music, I’m starting to notice what matters most to me: taking responsibility for the music you create and speaking it with your own voice. And I guess that is the new path. In many ways I’ve only just stepped on to it but I’m looking forward to finding out where it leads.

So there it is; somewhere around 100 minutes of music that is a sketch of a particular point in time. Arguably the definition of all recorded music? That’s another debate, but it’s a sketch that I’m fond of as it has come to represent a sort of bridge between two musical paths.

Well that was last year – where I’m at now, however, has more to do with spending two inspiring (and pretty intense) days in the small town of Asker, just outside Oslo. Misha Alperin has long been something of an idol to me. I first heard him play during the Edinburgh Festival in the mid 1990s – both in a solo setting and with his group the Moscow Art Trio. Since then, I’ve felt somehow connected to the way he plays.

My next birthday will be my 46th. It will also coincide with the 40th anniversary of me taking up the piano. I have been playing professionally (whatever that counts for) for almost 25 years, and that’s also pretty much the amount of time it’s been since I last took a piano lesson… Basically, I’ve been at this for a while. But there are things that have continually frustrated me about my own playing; things that I can’t articulate; things that I only ever experience as a feeling. I suspect I’m no different to any musician in that respect. It’s kind of like trying to finish a jigsaw with a missing piece and realising some of the other pieces belong to a different jigsaw, but they’re so similar you can’t figure out which ones. But listening to Misha’s music, there’s something about the diametric aspects of utter freedom and absolute control in his playing which which made me think they somehow relate to solving the puzzle… I just had a feeling he would be able to help me find the missing piece. So eventually, after a couple of decades, I finally contacted Misha. It was time.

Sometime perhaps I’ll write about what happened in those two days… for now I feel like I’m still digesting it. But some things are very clear to me after the trip to Norway, and if I were to distil some of them down to a few truths… then it might read like this: Making meaningful music is about taking responsibility for each and every note; My connection with folk music is stronger than I cared to admit in the past; My love for jazz improvisation doesn’t mean I have to improvise the way I learned from listening to jazz musicians; I find musical strength in simplicity – that’s often where the beauty lies for me; I can tell a more convincing story if I use my own voice.

Well – quite enough for now I’d say. I hope to record a solo piano album soon. Misha wants to produce it – I’m excited about that. I also hope to record again with Danilo & U.T. and perform concerts with them. Much to do… but in the meantime – hope to see you in Edinburgh.

December, Nativity, Steinway, Tony…

Well, hello December. I didn’t see you coming, and to be honest I’m not quite ready for you…

However, you placed that sky outside my front door this morning so I forgive you.

I’m looking forward to hooking up with Sardinian saxophonist Enzo Favata and his group for a concert in Alghero, Sardinia on December 27th. We’ll be performing with Colin Steele (trumpet) Danilo Gallo (bass) and U.T. Gandhi (drums).

What else is happening this Month? Not much else on the gig front, but I’m enjoying my practice routines at the moment. Discovering some fascinating stuff… but more about that soon.

Oh, yes and my five-year-old daughter is preparing for the school nativity. She will be playing Mary. Yes, the starring role – quite a promotion from 2013 when she was cast as ‘Innkeeper no.3’.She came home from school a couple of weeks ago and in an overdramatic, exasperated tone, said: “I can’t believe we’re doing the Jesus show again…. We did that one last year!”  She’s a girl who puts variety before tradition, what can I tell you?

Got some nice gigs coming up in the new year too – will update on that when I have more news. I will also sneak in here the announcement that I’m preparing to record a solo piano album, which will be done hopefully in the next few months. Just got to find that perfect Steinway first…

 

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

 

Finally, a wee bit of remembrance.

I just heard that Tony McLennan died. Tony was a great drummer from Glasgow and had an impressive list of musical associates – not least the Scottish legend that is Fionna Duncan and Ronnie Rae, but he also played with Buddy De Franco, Art Farmer, James Moody, Louis Stewart, Carol Kidd and Martin Taylor to name a few.  Tony was one of the first musicians I gigged with when I was starting out; cutting my teeth, so to speak…

We never talked about music in an academic way – I guess he was self-taught – but I did learn a thing or two from him. He would sometimes be talking about the music we had just played, or even were about to play – and just say something like: “It’s easy. Jist dae it son!”

I guess I was about twenty-two, and at the time I remember thinking: “Right. Easy, just do it. Gotcha.” But twenty-plus years later I have a different take on where he was coming from. I was full of questions then. Mostly stuff like how do I play better than this? How can I sound more like…? [insert any one of the many piano gods I may have been listening to at the time] I suppose I’m still full of questions, but I get the ‘just dae it’ advice now. Tony was crazy about music, and he wanted to play, to create magic. If you look at it like that, the idea that you can waste a single moment of potential magic making on worrying about what it’s supposed to sound like, it doesn’t make any sense.

That was probably around twenty years ago now. Around that time, I remember doing a wee tour of Ireland with Fionna Duncan. Ronnie Rae played bass, with Tony and myself making up the rest of the trio. The four of us, plus a PA, an electric piano, a double bass, a drum kit and 4 cases in one car. And Ronnie was the only one who could drive. There were many hours spent in the car, Tony and I in the back seat with our knees up around ears, we were so packed in. Tony more often than not had the wee ‘hauf bottle’ to pass the journey, and was rarely seen without a baseball cap on his head. We were also room-mates for that tour. I rarely needed an alarm clock sharing a room with Tony – he’d always wake up early and break the morning silence with a series of coughs, loud exhalations, burps, grunts, and the occasional ‘Fuck’s sake!’ thrown in for good measure. I never really got the measure of his home life, but remember the odd call home to his wife Janice he would make from the hotel room. I could only hear one side of the short conversation of course, but it went something like: “It’s me. Aye, it’s fine. How’s the dug?”

He was what you might call a rough diamond, but he was the real deal. I hadn’t seen or even heard of him for years and hearing he’d passed away wasn’t a complete shock. To be honest, if someone told me when I first met him he would live another twenty or so years, I’d have been surprised. But I’ve found myself thinking about him a lot since I heard the news, and I think it’s because I suddenly recognise the thing I admired about him; honesty. He was who he was and made no apologies for it. I like that. And he played the bejeezus out of the drums.

Rest in peace brother.