Dave Milligan | Pianist, Composer, Musical Director & Educator

Dave Milligan


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…


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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.

Norway, Shetland & Sardinia…

As we watch June whooshing by, I just want to take a moment to let you know about a few things coming up.

Next for me is a visit to the Førde Festival in Norway. I’ll be performing with String Sisters on Saturday 5th July. Always a joy to play with these guys – Annbjørg Lien, Catriona Macdonald, Liz Carrol, Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh, Liz Knowles and Liz Doherty; six of the finest traditional and folk fiddlers you’ll find anywhere.

Following a wee spot of recording and writing in the first half of July, I’m looking forward to hooking up with Sardinian saxophonist Enzo Favata and his group for the first of two dates this summer. First up with Enzo is a concert at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on July 18th where we’ll be performing with Colin Steele (trumpet) Danilo Gallo (bass) and U.T. Gandhi (drums).

Then it’s straight in to rehearsals for the Big Big Big Sing! This will be an incredible event held on Glasgow Green on July 27th. I’ve been charged (I mean appointed) as musical director of the 7-piece band that will holding down the grooves for an extraordinary afternoon of songs. Ever imagined what it would sound like to be in a choir of 10,000 singers? Well this is your chance. Check out the Big Big Sing website and come along! No experience necessary… and it’s free!

As August strides into view, I’ll be readying myself for some more exciting stuff. Not least my daughter is starting school. Wow. The shortest (and on another level, longest) five years of my life are giving way to the next phase… exciting times indeed.

Back to work though, and on August 10th I’ll be performing with Catriona Macdonald in Shetland – looks like a great night performing as part of the Fiddle Frenzy festival at Mareel in Lerwick.

I’ll be travelling to Sardina for a concert on August 14th with the Stone Islands again. Another collaboration with Enzo Favata, this time I’ll be taking fellow Scot Fraser Fifeld to join Italian musicians Filippo Vignato, Riccardo Pittau, Danilo Gallo, U.T. Gandhi and of course Enzo  himself.

Plenty more fun things beyond all this, but that’s enough for now don’t you think?

See you somewhere I hope.

Ever Since It All Clicked

Ever since it all clicked, creating original music has been as important to me as anything else I do, as elemental as breathing. I do it nearly all the time, even when I’m not composing or playing. 

At the age of six, I was sent for piano lessons. I remember being very excited; it seemed like a fun thing to do – my great aunt had showed me how to play a simple tune on our piano, and I loved that. So I guess the idea of doing more – and being able to play ‘properly’ – was very appealing.

As a professional musician and educator, perhaps I’m not expected to say this: but I hated it. After one or two lessons, the magic, fun, joy all disappeared. I pleaded with my mum & dad to let me stop. Everyone seemed to think I showed promise and had a talent for the piano, but I didn’t get it. For almost ten years I was made to go, every Wednesday, despite my efforts to convince my parents that I’d be much happier playing football with friends than stumbling through Bach and Czerny pieces. This is not an uncommon story. Of course, I liked music – as most youngsters did, I listened to the pop charts and bought albums of my favourite groups and dreamt of being in rock bands. But as a teenager I heard Jazz – and something changed. My desire to avoid my Wednesday lessons didn’t change, but it was around this time that my parents finally gave up the fight to get me to go. I realise now that the problem all along was lack of connection – with my teacher, with the music, with the piano. But after almost a decade I could, actually, play. And besides – it had just all clicked.

My dad had a modest but varied record collection. One of the records I remember in particular was “Satch and Josh”, a 1974 recording by Oscar Peterson & Count Basie. This was a record that made we want to play the piano; I started teaching myself some of the melodies I heard, learning to play bits of solos. Other pianists that I remember featuring in the collection included Meade Lux Lewis, Alan Branscombe, Dick Hyman and Art Tatum.

Luckily for me my older brother was slightly ahead of me on his voyage of jazz discovery and even as a teenager was a prolific collector of music (He still is). He always seemed very hungry for new things and I got to hear a lot of things that blew my mind because of him. Weather Report, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Frank Zappa

When I left school I went to study at Leeds College of Music.

Composing music always feels like a deeply rich and rewarding process. I have listened to and loved so very many different pieces of music, from so many different genres (even Bach!), that the language I draw inspiration from is so diverse that it can only be hugely exciting. And it is a language. I think that a composer’s vocabulary is the thing that can define his or her work. When I write, I sometimes think of it as answering; the idea of articulating a response to a conversation makes more sense if you think of music as a language. And it can be a conversation that’s been going on for years. Or maybe it just started that day. I’ve been a musician for over two decades and, oddly, I feel like I’m only just starting to speak.

Music and culture have never been as diverse as they are today. It’s incredibly interesting to witness. Yet in parts of our culture (including music) we’re starting to lose a sense of connection, tenderness and belonging.

One of the more curious aspects of my own writing process that I’ve noticed recently: I’m quite often inspired by rather dark, dissonant and oblique music. Yet in those moments, when I’m moved to write something – respond to it – I very often create something that’s quite the opposite, something almost vulnerable.  Of course, that’s just my take on it, but I guess I’m beginning to get a sense of what moves me to compose music; the desire to communicate or connect – to be in the conversation.

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As an improvising musician and composer, my aim has always been to create music that makes me, and others, feel good. At this point in my life, I would say that my aim has become somewhat transfigured: I aim to create music that makes me feel something. While I’m fairly certain I’ll never write anything with the intention of making anyone feel bad, I am now very clear about embracing an approach to creativity that doesn’t involve fear – fear, that is, of producing something that ‘people won’t like’; that’s ‘too dark’, ‘too sad’, ‘too inaccessible’ – or even ‘too happy’. Emotional response to music is personal and unique to each of us. I think I’ve developed as a composer to a degree where I take my own response as the one that matters most.