From now until the 2021 Juno Awards are presented on June 6, we will offer this weekly column to help you get to know some of the nominees in all categories a little better.
Meet the 2021 Juno Nominees:
Andy Milne and Unison
Nominated in the category Jazz Album of the Year: Group
Although pianist Andy Milne won a Juno in 2019 for the album The Seasons Of Being (recorded with his long-running ensemble Dapp Theory), he wasn’t able to fully enjoy the honour as it came during a time when the Toronto native was recovering from prostate cancer surgery.
No one ever wants to receive a cancer diagnosis, but for Milne, on the cusp of turning 50, the news forced him to re-evaluate every aspect of his life. From a musical standpoint, it prompted Milne to finally pursue a project he’d been contemplating for some time of scaling back his sound to a more traditional acoustic trio, in the spirit of his most formidable teacher Oscar Peterson, and one of his main inspirations, McCoy Tyner.
Teaming up with bassist John Hebert and drummer Clarence Penn, the newly christened Andy Milne and Unison immediately became another component of the busy schedule Milne continued to maintain throughout his treatment. When the trio’s debut album The ReMission was released in April 2020, it lived up to its title both in terms of marking a year of Milne being cancer free, and his eagerness to get back to totally focusing on making music.
Yet, this year’s Juno nomination for The ReMission has put other things into different perspective for Milne. “Whenever my work is recognized by my community, I am always honoured and grateful,” he says. “This year’s nomination does have a strange, bittersweet taste because the album was released just as everything went into lockdown last year. I had to cancel my tour and never got a chance to fully experience the next phase of the recording's existence. Still, being that it is the 50th anniversary of the Junos, it makes this year particularly special to have my work commemorated this way.”
Along with the accolades he’s received at home, Milne has also become a recognized name within the American jazz scene over the past two decades, having been involved in a diverse array of musical and theatrical projects, as well as recording and touring with the likes of Ravi Coltrane and Cassandra Wilson. He admits that being essentially disconnected from all of that in the last year has been difficult.
“To be honest, my audience engagement [since lockdown] hasn’t been very inspired. I’ve done a handful of virtual performances but I’ve mostly focused on skill development, my teaching, and tackling projects that I never had time for. At some point, the fruits of these efforts will reach audiences when I’m able to share either in person or virtually.”
Of course, each notable occurrence such as a Juno nomination brings another opportunity to remind those who don’t pay close attention to the jazz world that there are still artists like Milne making innovative, original music that nonetheless carries forward the work of all who came before.
In describing his own approach, Milne says, “I love to explore the intersection of texture, sound, melody and groove. My music is usually inspired by the sounds I hear in nature and the music of the great artists I respect and those I’ve learned from—Thelonious Monk, Joni Mitchell, Duke Ellington, Steve Coleman, just to name a few. Most of my music involves some element of improvisation, within a structure compositional environment. All in all, I try to create a sense of freedom, balance, structure and beauty.”