Bert Seager dives deep on Freedom of Assembly
Cellars by Starlight by Jon Garelick
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.
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
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
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
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
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.