Outside is quiet with the weight of snow—nothing but bus tires working the rough bark of the cleared road. The dead of prairie winter in Edmonton, Canada. The bus stops and the doors sigh open. A man lugs a bass drum, snare drum, and hi-hat onto the number 128 bus to campus. There’s barely room to stand. I figure Mark Segger must be used to feeling cramped—on top of being a composer, educator, clinician, and doctoral Killam Scholar at the University of Alberta, Mark keeps a variety of engagements, including what I’d call a “chaos fusion” project—Blackout Over Rio—the free improv group Damn Magpies, and of course,the Mark Segger Sextet.
In addition to culminating Mark’s experience as an international free music improviser, relentless genre-hopper, and meticulous player, the Sextet is a generous venue for Mark’s thoughtful style of composition. With Lift Off, the group’s second album since 2008, Mark sets his eyes “towards [a] kind of clear, honest human to human expression,” guiding his cohort—some of Toronto’s most accomplished improvisers; Jim Lewis, Heather Saumer, Peter Lutek, Tania Gill, and Rob Clutton—through a musical narrative that truly does smack of rawness.
The album wastes no time in lifting the veil—right from the outset, the Sextet creates a breezy deluge of color anchored only by the snare drum snapping fast exclamation points in the eye of some auditory sandstorm. Don’t cheat yourself out of this experience—this track will envelop you—grab your best headphones, because “Lift Off”goes zero to escape velocity in no time at all.
“Lift Off” is also prime Segger—you only need to see him perform to understandthat his playing is often about manically conjuring rolling waves of percussion that come rushing as if to fill some inadmissible silence. Anything goes, from “prepared drums” (a snare drum can be a cluttered work desk too; bottle caps, rocks, marbles, you name it), to abusing cymbals by scrape or bow, to teasing out low burping groans out of tom-toms using—I’m not kidding—a rubber bouncy ball affixed to a chopstick. Mark’s explosive relationship to the drum kit at times resembles that of a bar champ taming his mechanical bull—and accidents do happen, as when the drum stool yields and the rider exits the saddle involuntarily. I saw it happen with my own eyes—without breaking the flow, Mark took his hi-hat aside like a misbehaving child and scolded it until there was no more jazz left in it. That’s the wonderful ethos of free improvisation—use what’s dealt, and quite literally, roll with it.
Taking on a decidedly more sentimental and emotive flavor, “Cluttertone News”is reminiscent of creaking newspaper-covered floorboards in a musty room where it is perpetually the last Sunday of the month. A limp, melting figure drags their foot from one unspoken question to the next, pacing slowly from wall to window. The composition is all at once ruminating, regretful, and stupidly hopeful.
If you ever wondered what the inside of an ellipsis sounds like—the sound of time passing when it is not relevant to the story—what dust thinks bathing in a sunbeam—“….”captures that sense of time dislocation, of the world, sitting unobserved and yet still so wrapped up in its own happening. Remarkably, while never insisting on an identifiable rhythm or grid, there is a rhythmic pointillism to the track that makes it seem oh so organic.
“For the bees” is a staircase of stumbling non-sensical harmonies, and long trilling ropes of notes cut by buzz strokes on the ride cymbal. Here, Segger lets on that he’s drawing on “Bartók and Ligeti,” as well as the “‘insect music’ of the 1960’s British Free improvisation scene.” Just as everything is humming, promising collapse under its own sweltering energy, we pull slowly pull back like the camera in a David Lynch film, and the punchline is as self-evident as it is nowhere to be seen.
“One Note”is a testament to the creative power of restraint, and a respectful nod to the depths of musical possibility conjured by people and places likePauline Oliverosand Echtzeitmusik, who time and time again stood enthralled and humbled by the seemingly endless expressive power of a single tone. Much like physicists pushing against the Uncertainty Principle, the Sextet are moving here in a cloud of variations on the trajectory of a single note, sometimes dragging the note, sometimes hurtling it—spin and counter-spin, texture and inflection. “I think about creating custom spaces for us to soar in, and sometimes throw challenging spaces in the way,” Segger says—in this composition, we always know the note is a B, but we never know where it’ll appear next—“we figure out the secret improvisational answer [to that] as a group.”
“One night at the Tranzac,” Segger says, “[bass player] Rob Clutton and I were talking about our musical goals […] and I realized that the idea of being a singer-songwriter, sitting around a campfire with a guitar [is] kind of the pinnacle of where I see myself being.” Bartók and Ligeti certainly weren’t singer-songwriter fare—so, since Segger draws on musical traditions that are often dismissed for being heady and inaccessible, this struck me as a surprising and even paradoxical statement.
However, it’s true that Lift Off has a very narrative and lyrical quality if you look at it the right way. The extended techniques used by the Sextet turn each instrument from a voice to a personality, while the improvisation contributes the rawness and immediate honesty, and the compositional ideas evoke strong narrative beats. This album is to the singer-songwriter idiom what a silent movie is to the talkies—there’s story and lyricism, just not over the lyrical channel. It will certainly be exciting to keep an eye on how Segger continues to assert his ideal over the relative stiffness of the traditions he is most rooted in.
Liftoff is a remarkably cohesive synthesis of free playing and composition that ought to land in your collection if you’re wont to going for rides. Pick up a copy at the Yardbird Suite on February 8th if you happen to be around the bend.