Lockdown encourages pianist to release international collaboration

When pianist Dave Milligan arrived in Udine, in Northern Italy, to record with Italian bassist Danilo Gallo and drummer U.T. Gandhi, he was struck by the view from his hotel room balcony.

The now Pathhead-based Milligan grew up among the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders and while these hills are not quite as spectacular as the Italian Alps, he immediately felt at home in his new surroundings.

This may partly explain how the sessions with Gallo and Gandhi, resulting in the album Momento, which Milligan releases on 28th August, went so well. Only partly, though, because Milligan is full of appreciation for the input of his fellow musicians and the engineer at ArteSuono studios, Stefano Amerio.

Milligan met Gallo and Gandhi on an international project with the trumpeter Colin Steele and Italian saxophonist Enzo Favata at Edinburgh Jazz Festival in 2014. At the time he was struck by the energy they created together as a rhythm section.

The following year, a bursary from Creative Scotland allowed Milligan to pursue a couple of ideas that would help his personal development. One of these ideas was a few days’ study with the Soviet-Norwegian pianist Misha Alperin near Olso; the other was the trip that took Milligan to Udine.

“I got in touch with Danilo and U.T. and booked two days in ArteSuono with Stefano,” says Milligan. “I had no expectations. I’d really enjoyed playing with Danilo and U.T. in Edinburgh but before we played a note in the studio, I told them that if we didn’t even record one complete track, that was fine. This was really just an experiment for me. It was about letting go and being in the moment. I adore their playing and knew that their own responses to the material would allow me to just sit in a different space.” 

Milligan has developed a reputation in the UK and internationally as an uncommonly versatile musician. As well as being the pianist-arranger behind Colin Steele’s award-winning work, he has featured with trumpeter Art Farmer, saxophonist Charlie Mariano, guitarist Larry Carlton, percussionist Trilok Gurtu, and Nashville gospel-soul legends the McCrary Sisters. His parallel career in folk music has included albums and tours with international fiddle group String Sisters and ongoing projects with harpist-singer Corrina Hewat. He also recently collaborated, as musical supervisor, with former Dire Straits frontman, Mark Knopfler, on the stage musical version of the Scottish comedy-drama film Local Hero.

His trio recordings in the noughties, Late Show and Shops, were very warmly received and it was the realisation, while Scotland was in lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, that he hadn’t put out anything under his own name since those two albums that spurred Milligan to release Momento.

“The abrupt stop in playing live and meeting other musicians that the Covid-19 pandemic brought gave me time to think about my own music for the first time in quite a while,” says Milligan, whose recent work with Colin Steele has included an album of Joni Mitchell songs that is due for release in September. “I’d been thinking it was ten years since Shops was released and maybe time to get something out. Then someone pointed out it was actually twelve years and so I thought, I really need to do this.”

Listening again to the sessions with Gallo and Gandhi, Milligan was struck by how connected he and the Italians sounded as a trio.

“I chose seven of the tracks – there’s enough material for another album, at least – and I liked the flow. Two of the tracks are based on Scottish folk songs that I took into the studio to try out with the guys. Naturally, the recording doesn’t reveal the words but the sentiment behind the songs feels strangely resonant in today’s world. The others are original compositions, one for solo piano, the others for trio.”

Momento is now planned as the first in a series of albums and will initially be released digitally, with the option to press physical copies when musicians return to regular gigging. Milligan also hopes to work with the same team again and would love to return to ArteSuono at some point.

“As well as having great musicians and an incredible engineer to work with, the landscape in that part of the world is inspiring,” he says. “The sense of expanse and tranquility that we found in the studio – you can hear it in Going Nowhere, the opening track of Momento – that’s exactly what I was looking for, and it comes from that same energy I felt on the first gig we played together in Edinburgh.”

Momento is released on Big Bash Records BBRCD018 and will be available from Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify as well as www.davemilligan.co.uk

Adam Roberts

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