by Ian Mann
September 03, 2020
Combining his love of jazz and folk, and adding a welcome touch of Italian seasoning, “Momento” deserves to bring Milligan back to the attention of the British jazz public.
Dave Milligan Trio
(Big Bash Records – Digital Release Only)
Dave Milligan – piano, Danilo Gallo – double bass, U.T. Gandhi – drums
“Momento” is an international collaboration that teams the Scottish pianist and composer Dave Milligan with the Italian rhythm team of Danilo Gallo (double bass) and U.T. Gandhi (drums).
The trio first came together at Edinburgh Jazz Festival when the three worked together as part of an international jazz project led by the Scottish trumpeter Colin Steele. Milligan found that he enjoyed playing with the two Italians so much that he determined to pursue a project of his own with them.
This was facilitated by a Creative Scotland bursary that allowed Milligan to travel to Cavalicco in the Italian province of Udine. Together with Gallo and Gandhi he went into the famous Artesuono recording studio for two days, where the seven Milligan originals that comprise “Momento” were recorded.
Founded by recording engineer Stefano Amerio Artesuono is a studio with an international reputation, and is now a highly favoured recording location for the prestigious German record label ECM. Many classic ECM recordings have been made here and Amerio himself was behind the desk during the recording of “Momento”.
“Momento” represents Milligan’s first recording as a leader since “Shops”, recorded in 2008 with a trio featuring bassist Tom Lyne and drummer Tom Bancroft. Not that Milligan has been exactly idle in the meantime. He is a highly versatile musician with close ties to the Scottish jazz and folk scenes and also works as a composer, arranger and musical director who has written for stage and screen and is currently working with Mark Knopfler on the score of the stage version of “Local Hero”. He has written for classical orchestras and jazz big bands and is also an acclaimed music educator.
Equally at home with both the jazz and folk genres Milligan has enjoyed a particularly fruitful partnership with Colin Steele and has appeared on all the trumpeter’s albums as a pianist and arranger. Other jazz musicians with whom he has recorded include guitarist Kevin McKenzie, saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock and vocalist Sophie Bancroft. He has also worked with such jazz luminaries as saxophonists Scott Hamilton, Peter King, Joe Temperley and Charlie Mariano, trumpeter Art Farmer, guitarist Larry Carlton and percussionist Trilok Gurtu.
In the folk field his regular collaborators include vocalist Karine Polwart, fiddler Catriona MacDonald, harpist/vocalist Corrina Hewatt, concertina virtuoso Simon Thoumire and the bands The Unusual Suspects, String Sisters and Bachue. He has also worked with Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell and with story teller Mike Maran.
The complete list of Milligan’s musical activities is too exhaustive to be reproduced here but can be found at his website http://www.davemilligan.co.uk.
On a personal note I recall enjoying a performance by Milligan’s trio with Tom Lyne and Tom Bancroft at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival circa 2003/4, around the time of the release of their excellent début album “Late Show” and before the launch of the Jazzmann site.
Turning now to this current recording, which commences with “Going Nowhere”, a piece written by Milligan during his flight out to Italy and which was the first item that the trio recorded. Milligan describes the piece as “a sketch; a vehicle to set off on a voyage. It was the first track we recorded and I immediately knew that wherever we ended up it would be worth it for the journey alone”.
Introduced by a passage of solo piano the work unfolds slowly and gently, with the emphasis on melody, despite nothing formal having been written beforehand. It says much for the rapport of the trio that they could produce something as beautiful as this from the bare bones of Milligan’s sketch.
The piece wouldn’t sound out of place on an ECM recording, with the trio’s unhurried approach embracing a similar use of space, and with Gandhi complementing Milligan’s piano lyricism with some exquisite cymbal work. Meanwhile Gallo delivers a brief melodic bass cameo just before the close.
“Parcel of Rogues” is the first of two pieces to be sourced from the Scottish folk tradition. The words are often attributed to Robert Burns, although it is acknowledged that he adapted elements of it from earlier works. Milligan says of the song;
“First printed in the early 1790s, it fiercely protests against the Union of the Crowns between Scotland and England in 1707, calling out the thirty or so ruling-class Scots who are said to have sold the nation out ‘for English gold’. Over two hundred years on, the indignation at the abuse of power expressed in the song still chimes with many Scots”.
Recordings of the song have been made by folk musicians Euan McColl and Dick Gaughan, and it was also the title track of an album by the folk-rock group Steeleye Span.
Milligan’s version treats the tune to an upbeat jazz arrangement in which his piano playing skilfully combines melodic and rhythmic functions. His expansive solo is underpinned by Gandhi’s neatly energetic drumming, complete with military style flourishes. Gallo subsequently takes over at the bass, his solo now displaying a more robust and forceful side of his playing.
“There’s Always Tomorrow” was originally written for big band with Milligan again drawing on the works of Burns for inspiration, specifically the exchange of letter between the poet and his muse, Agnes McLehose.
This scaled down trio arrangement adopts a more contemporary feel, vaguely reminiscent of E.S.T. or Phronesis, with hard driving passages interspersed by more reflective, or even abstract, episodes. Milligan again solos expansively while Gallo’s vigorous unaccompanied bass solo explores the percussive possibilities of the instrument as he allows the strings to slap against the fingerboard.
Milligan’s dedication for the composition “They Said It Was About To You” simply reads “For Ella”. Introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano and inspired by the folk ballad tradition the piece has a song-like construction and has been described as “a song without words”. The performance is distinguished by its lyricism and the intimate interplay between piano, bass and drums, with Gandhi deploying brushes and again contributing some delightfully thoughtful and delicate cymbal embellishments. Gallo’s bass solo combines melodic reflection with a deep resonance, and constitutes a complete contrast with his playing on the previous piece.
The second piece to draw upon the Scottish folk tradition is Milligan’s arrangement of the song
“The Freedom Come All Ye”, of which Milligan explains;
“This is actually an adaptation of the First World War retreat march ‘The Bloody Fields of Flanders’, composed by piper John McLellan (1875-1949). I’ve always known this tune as the melody for the 1960 poem and song ‘The Freedom Come All Ye’ by Hamish Henderson, set to the melody of McLellan’s pipe march, which Henderson first heard being played in 1944 on the beachhead at Anzio, Italy. It’s another hugely popular song in Scotland, and is often used in political protest. I was struck by watching South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza performing the song at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Hearing it connect to another culture - in particular one with its own history of deep struggle - is perhaps where some of the flavour of this interpretation has come from. For me, the song resonates - today, as much as it ever did - with a world that craves hope and desperately needs peace. Clearly there are no words used here but, having come to the melody through the song, I was inspired to title this track with reference to Henderson’s powerful text”.
Despite the song’s battlefield origins there’s a real joy about the performance here as the folk inspired melodies combine with a skipping jazz groove to fuel a typically imaginative and expansive piano solo from Milligan. There’s a spirit of fierce interaction between the trio as a whole, but a particularly striking aspect of the performance is the spirited interplay between Milligan and Gandhi, with the drummer turning in a busily inventive and highly detailed display behind the kit.
The album’s only solo piano performance is “Sandy’s 70th”, written for the occasion of Milligan’s father’s 70th birthday, a piece that the composer dedicates simply “For Dad”. Partly inspired by the works of Erik Satie the piece is an elegant, lyrical jazz waltz, performed with an appropriate reverence and tenderness by its composer.
Milligan was born in Hawick, in the Scottish Borders, and the closing “Made in the Border” pays homage to his childhood home. The composer’s liner notes give a comprehensive explanation as to the inspirations behind the tune;
“This was inspired by a tune called The Border Maiden, which I found in a book of collected fiddle music. It was composed by Emile Berger (1838-1900); a German-born pianist and composer who settled in Glasgow after accepting an engagement to be the accompanist for ‘Saturday Evening Concerts’ at Glasgow City Hall in 1865. The Border Maiden appears - with lyrics - in ‘The Scots Fiddle’ (Vol 2): Tunes, Tales & Traditions of the Lothians, Borders & Ayrshire. The song tells of the large system of beacons or bale-fires that were in place around the hills of the Scottish Borders during less peaceful times. The beacons stretched from Hume, near Kelso to Soutra Hill and beyond to Edinburgh, Fife and Stirling. It was widely understood that if a single beacon was lit that it warned of potential danger; two indicated the approach of invaders, while four burning in a row signalled the advance of a large army. It was the call for all able-bodied men to rally to the defence of their country”.
He also compares the landscape of Udine with the Borders adding;
“Something changed for me over those few days in Italy – 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. As well as having great musicians and a great engineer to work with, the landscape around the studio is inspiring. When I arrived in Udine, I stood for a while on the balcony of my room and tried to take in the panoramic horizon that was the Alps. It was unexpected and breath-taking; particularly bathed as it was in the colours of a humid summer evening. A long way away - on so many levels - from the rolling hills of the Borders, where I grew up. But, for a moment at least, it felt like home.”
“Made in the Border” commences with a rousing intro, with those folk influences immediately apparent in the melody, which is initially stated by Gallo’s bass, in the company of Gandhi’s martial drums. Milligan subsequently takes over as the music takes on a more contemporary feel, with the leader’s expansive soloing spurred on by driving rhythms. The pianist’s own playing is highly percussive, his staccato jabbing augmented by muscular bass and busy drums. Gallo’s bass solo combines power with dexterity, and he’s followed by a series of dazzling exchanges between Milligan and Gandhi that recalls their earlier jousting on “The Freedom Come All Ye”.
Dave Milligan is a cornerstone of the Scottish music scene, a hugely versatile and adaptable musician who operates across a variety of musical styles and disciplines. It’s sometimes easy to overlook such chameleon-like figures and Milligan’s abilities as a jazz soloist and composer have frequently been undervalued.
Combining his love of jazz and folk, and adding a welcome touch of Italian seasoning, “Momento” deserves to bring him back to the attention of the British jazz public after a lengthy absence on the leadership front. In many ways it’s unfortunate that this is a digital only release, which even now will make the album less attractive to some listeners. However I’d urge all jazz fans, and particularly those with an interest in the Scottish jazz scene and in piano jazz in general to check this music out. Don’t ignore this one.
“Momento” is available via Milligan’s website http://www.davemilligan.co.uk
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