The Boston Phoenix
February 24 - March 2, 2000

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Bert Seager dives deep on Freedom of Assembly

Cellars by Starlight by Jon Garelick

Freedom of Assembly The new Freedom of Assembly (Buzz) has sounds on it that might surprise followers of Bert Seager's music -- handclaps, grunts, shouts, pieces that ignore standard song form or, at the very least, the jazz convention of theme-solos-theme. Ever since the release of Time To Burn (Antilles), in 1987, Seager's been a dependable player on the Boston scene -- a pianist schooled in the mainstream bebop tradition who nonetheless could be counted on to avoid cliché, tinker with form, make familiar music fresh. It helped that he had a delicate attack, lyric imagination, and a talent for writing that gave his music a personal voice, a touch of the poet.

In that sense, Freedom of Assembly isn't all that huge a departure. It includes two standards (Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad" and Irving Berlin's "Remember"), it regularly returns to the comfort of a 4/4 groove, its language is basically tonal. Certainly there are wilder and woollier piano trio records around, from free-jazz godfather Cecil Taylor to young lions like Pandelis Karayorgis. And with most of the 11 tunes clocking in at five minutes or less, the disc avoids avant-garde sprawl. The lyricism and swing are still identifiably Seager's. But as a personal artistic choice, the album represents a revolution. After five albums as a leader, innumerable hotel and wedding gigs, and jazz sessions with the likes of Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell, Charles McPherson, George Garzone, Tim Hagans, Sal Nistico, Joe Hunt, and Jimmy Mosher, with Freedom of Assembly Seager was jumping off a cliff.

"It's a pretty big departure for me," he explains over lunch at the Casablanca in Harvard Square. "I've played tunes all my life -- in my hotel gigs, on my records. It's all been tunes, very formal. And this music has no forms, it doesn't even have solos." Instead, except for those two standards, the music -- the "compositions" -- were all spontaneously improvised in the studio.

Bert Seager As he tells it, Seager's transformation was a gradual one. It began a couple of years ago when he found that his regular working trio was dispersing. The brilliant young drummer Dan Rieser had gone off to play rock and roll. Bassist Dan Greenspan, who has a relationship with Seager going back at least as far as Time To Burn, was more and more distracted by other projects (including his ongoing primary musical partnership with his wife, Mili Bermejo). Through his childhood friend the rock drummer Kenny Aranoff, Seager hooked up with the young Bulgarian bassist George Donchev, who had just moved to town. In their first gigs together, Seager was struck with Donchev's perfect time and his adventurousness as a soloist. What's more, Donchev created new challenges for Seager's own playing. "George is the kind of guy who develops an idea and stays with it, then switches the time around so that you really have to pay attention or you'll get lost. He'll do deceptively simple things -- move the beat over by a quarter note -- so that if you haven't been paying attention, you'll think he's somewhere else, but then he'll come back."

Donchev, Seager found, bored easily -- he didn't want to keep playing the same tunes, counting them off in the same way. Soon Donchev was pushing Seager to experiment with standard repertoire. They began applying the odd time signatures (7, 11, 13) of Donchev's Bulgarian folk to Charlie Parker tunes. "Part of it was trust," says Seager now. "I knew the space he was coming from, but I also knew that he could do what I needed him to do."

Donchev became part of Seager's hotel-gig routine. On Fridays Bert played duets with Donchev, on Saturdays with Greenspan. Once a month a horn player would join the duo. "One weekend George said, `Don't hire the horn player this week and do all those arrangements you have. Let's hire this drummer I know, Nat Mugavero.' "

That's when the roof blew off. Seager was in his mid 40s, Donchev was 30. Mugavero, then in his early 60s, had been a Basie-style big-band drummer in the 1950s. He spelled the legendary Alan Dawson on that drummer's nights off at Lennie's on the Turnpike, and he became part of the house rhythm section that, with bassist John Neves and Mike Nock, backed many of the big-name musicians who came through the club -- Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Sonny Stitt, Joe Williams. But in the '60s, Mugavero joined the "free jazz" revolution with pianist Lowell Davidson and bassist Kent Carr.

Seager recalls of his first night with Mugavero, "On the first set we were playing tunes. Then before the second set, Nat said to me, `Instead of playing a tune, let's play the mood of a tune. Instead of playing `Yardbird Suite,' let's play the mood of `Yardbird Suite' -- what it says to us.' "

Mugavero and Donchev, who had been playing as a free-jazz duet one night a week at the Western Front, kept pushing Seager. Mugavero encouraged Seager to avoid standard chord patterns -- patterns that would require Mugavero to answer with a standard response. "George and Nat said to me, `We want to make this music our own every time.' " Still, when Seager booked time at WGBH's Studio 1 to record, he brought a stack of music. "I just wanted to see if the engineer could get a good sound. And George and Nat said, `Sorry Bert, we don't want to play tunes, we want to play free.' So that was the first time I actually ever played free."

The album's opening tune, "Preamble," begins with plucking out a simple, lovely four-note nursery-rhyme kind of theme that Seager moves around into different registers before modulating into a new key. That kind of simple melodic content is what unifies the album, no matter how far afield the three musicians explore. It's mimicked in Berlin's "Remember," which gets a fairly straight reading the first time around and a more rhythmically and harmonically "out" interpretation for the album's closing.

But even in a wandering, spontaneously improvised piece like "Warp and Woof," with its free tempo, the band sustain narrative tension. Sometimes it's in Seager's working over a melodic fragment with increasing intensity, or breaking from stringent single-note phrases into a series of harmonically ambiguous descending chords. Sometimes it's in dramatic silences, as bass and drums fall out to let the piano quietly muse to itself. Or it's Mugavero's bell-like cymbal work chiming away in the ensemble. The piece finds its way from one dramatic detail to the next, finally groping through a series of dark dissonant chords before opening, at the last moment, into a sunny major key.

"I plucked out the first four notes," says Seager of "Preamble," singing, "and then I kept using that, and then I changed key. I didn't know what I was doing. George was sort of slapping the bass with the back of his bow instead of plucking it, but he was playing notes, and somehow he was able to change keys with me. There's a couple of times when he finishes a phrase for me. Maybe it's telepathic, or maybe I'm just easy to read. I don't know how that shit happens. But I do know that when I'm playing tunes, I know what key I'm in. When I'm playing with this band, 50 to 70 percent of the time, I don't know what chords I'm playing. I've stopped looking. It's sort of like `The force is with you,' you just keep moving your hands because you hear it. It's all without saying, `This is an E-minor 7 with a raised 11' -- which is what I do all the time normally. I've worked so hard to be able to control all this stuff and now it's really a process of letting go."

Seager says that the band have traveled light years since Freedom of Assembly was recorded. The album was done in two sessions in January and March of last year, and individual takes tended to be longer than they ended up being on the album. Seager cut each piece at what he thought was a good ending point. Now, he says, the band play naturally to the album's four- or five-minute lengths.

He's aware of the precedents for what Freedom of Assembly is doing. He speaks admiringly of Paul Bley, an early experimenter with rhythmically and harmonically free spontaneous collective improvisation. In a recent New York Times piece, Bley talked about those experiments, in which he and his collaborators freed up the piano trio so that piano, bass, and drums were all equal rhythmic and melodic voices.

"It's hard," says Seager, "a blank page. But that's also where our wisdom comes from -- that source of fear, all that space and openness. It's also the source of our soul and mind."

Bert Seager and Freedom of Assembly play the Regattabar this Wednesday, March 1. Call 876-7777.

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