For his latest album, Andy Milne could have assembled a crew of likeminded colleagues and recorded a blowing session of originals and covers. Instead, the pianist, composer, and Dapp Theory bandleader chose to do something a whole lot more ambitious and original: work with the diagnostic principles of homeopathic healing to distill into musical form the emotional psyches of the musicians involved in the project. The Seasons of Being is thus uncharted territory of a kind, even if some related precedent is present in the way Ellington fashioned material with specific orchestra band members in mind. But whereas Duke’s focus was primarily on the individual playing style of a musician, Milne mines the idea further in attempting to weave aspects of the participants’ inner states into the compositional content.
The concept didn’t come to the Hamilton, Ontario-born Milne randomly. A recent (and successful) battle with prostate cancer brought him to homeopathic healing, which in turn led to a Chamber Music America commission to explore the effects of homeopathic techniques on composition for a chamber ensemble. His positive experiences prompted him to question how it might affect improvisation and facilitate heightened emotional interactions for the musicians playing his music. Milne devised specific strategies to help realize the goal, including exposing the players to listening tests of diverse musical forms to gauge the degree to which a particular style resonated; he even administered a questionnaire that Milne and homeopathic healer David Kramer assessed in search of clues as to the musicians’ taste and emotional character. All such research was then channeled into the compositional design of The Seasons of Being, which plays more like a formal nine-part work that as a live piece would be best presented in sequence and in its entirety.
The album partners Milne on piano with his long-standing Dapp Theory quintet, which in its current iteration features woodwinds maestro Aaron Kruziki, bassist Christopher Tordini, drummer Kenny Grohowski, and wordsmith John Moon. Bolstering that core are guitarist Ben Monder, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, vocalist La Tanya Hall, saxophonist Michael Attias, and cellists Christopher Hoffman and Jody Redhage, all of whose contributions are pivotal to the project. Even if one were ignorant of the project’s thematic side, one would glean its general character from the texts spoken and sung by Hall and Moon. In fact, the concept comes directly into focus in the opening “Surge & Splendor” when the two muse upon music’s healing power in spoken word turns alongside a piano-led backdrop nicely enhanced by contributions from Redhage, a clarinet-wielding Kruziki, and smoldering Monder.
Vocal and instrumental cuts alternate, with the two combining to give the recording variety and verve. Though the project’s very much Milne’s (he’s the sole composer and primary lyricist, with Hall and Moon receiving credit for lyrics on “The Guardian”), he adopts a less dominant role as a pianist, content to perform as an ensemble member and share the spotlight with the others. Individual soloing is plentiful, but it’s often ensemble playing that distinguishes the material, the Latin-tinged coda that brings “The Cusp” to a fleet close a case in point.
Hall’s vocal prowess is well-accounted for in “The Guardian,” which conjoins her elegant singing to intimate small-group playing in a manner suggestive of a less flamboyant Cassandra Wilson. “Scotopia” pairs MC-styled flow from Moon to late-night jazz playing by the musicians, with a prominent Alessi drawing a connecting thread to classic jazz and Moon doing the same to hip-hop. With clarinet and muted trumpet extending across Monder’s atmospherics and Milne’s explorative ornamentations, “Ancestree” adopts a more meditative mien than others, while “Three-Way Mirror,” the album’s longest cut at nine minutes, is distinguished by a moving solo delivered by Hoffman during a sombre dirge sequence.
As wide-ranging stylistically as the tracks are, they’re unified by Milne’s compositional sensibility, which sometimes evidences a bent for the kind of labyrinthine complexity often heard in Steve Coleman’s writing. That the pianist played with the saxophonist as a Five Elements member on his releases from 1992 to 2001 obviously suggests some degree of influence by him on Milne, even if simply by osmosis. He’s clearly forged his own formidable path in the years since, however, with The Seasons of Being a prime example of the boldness of his personal vision.