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

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.