Sunday, March 03, 2019

CD Review: Brötzmann/Leigh-Sparrow Nights

Peter Brötzmann/Heather Leigh
Sparrow Nights

In the photo spread across the gatefold of Sparrow Nights, Peter Brötzmann stands with his hands in his pockets, looking at Heather Leigh, who sits at her pedal steel guitar. He doesn't have any of his instruments within view and it's hard to tell if his eyes are focused on Leigh or her instrument. But he looks thoughtful, as if he's trying to figure how his approach to reeds could work with an instrument that's usually found in country music.

Brötzmann is known for his aggressive approach to horns, mainly on tenor saxophone but also on bass sax, clarinets and taragato. Any casual listener knows that his work can be brutal at times. But he does adapt his sound, depending on the group. I heard him a few years ago in a duet with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and the meeting drew out some subtle lines from his partner.  Maybe it was just the subject matter but his album Never Too Late But Always Too Early, dedicated to the late bassist Peter Kowald, felt more reflective as he meditated on the loss of his friend.

Of course, Leigh is no stranger to Brötzmann. They've released three other albums of live performances. Sparrow Nights documents their first time working in a studio. She also has a unique approach to her instrument, making it drone or howl like a conventional guitar. Only when she bends the pitch does it come close to resembling a standard pedal steel.

"Summer Rain" starts the album with Brötzmann ruminating on tenor in a warm tone that points towards more traditional players of that instrument. Leigh fades in towards the end of the two-minute piece, sounding like an organ upon first entry. "This Word Love" follows, with Leigh repeating a two-note vamp, setting a mood that would fit perfectly on a label like Kranky. When Brötzmann enters, the crisp recording invites the opportunity to imagine what his embouchure might be like. (It wasn't that last time I thought about this during the album.) Although soprano sax isn't listed as one of his many instruments on Sparrow Nights, this track's horn sounds a lot like one. Notes squeeze their way out of the bell, sounding like the air narrowly escaped getting trapped on the reed in his mouth. They're rough and scratchy but make an interesting combination with Leigh's droning background.

Leigh begins alone in "It's Almost Dark," plucking out notes and creating ripples of strings. After five minutes, the niceties are gone. Brötzmann unleashes a swarm of wails from his horn and Leigh bends pitches. Rather than end on vicious blasts, they bring the mood back down, sounding pensive and just a little bit eerie.

Brötzmann switches between tenor, alto and bass saxophones, along with B-flat, bass and contra-alto clarinets, so things never get too predictable. Of the ten tracks on the disc (six on vinyl), four go on for ten minutes or more. Although things can get pretty dense, these improvisations often change shape rather than staying in one spot and attempting to blow down the walls. This becomes especially clear in "My Empty Heart," where the ambient strings and wailing clarinet reach a particular sweet spot, shimmering and wailing at the same time.

Sparrow Nights might not be easy listening but it reveals how two seemingly opposite instruments (and players) take cues from each other and how those ideas can finfluence the way they respond.

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