By Colin Green
The duo of Peter Brötzmann (reeds) and Heather Leigh (pedal steel guitar) has been causing something of a stir since their first meeting at Glasgow’s Tectonics Festival in May last year. The pedal steel guitar has long outgrown the familiar C&W twang but it doesn’t have much of a profile in free jazz or improv. Not anymore. Leigh is US born but now resident in Scotland, and on her recent album, I Abused Animal (Ideologic Organ, 2015) we also hear her haunting voice.
This album was recorded during a residency by Brötzmann’s Octet, of which Leigh formed part, at the Alchemia, Kraków in November 2015. It consists of the title piece, at just under half an hour. I also had the chance to catch the duo during their recent short tour of Britain at Salford’s Islington Mill, Brötzmann’s first visit to Manchester since the Eighties. Their set lasted about twice as long as the album performance but covered more or less the same ground.
Leigh’s playing is often simple but hypnotic; like Brötzmann, reduced down to essentials and shorn of frippery, and a perfect foil for his repertoire of dramatic peaks and troughs as he excavates down to the core, the stuff that matters. They play without a break using overlapping blocks of material as one picks up from the other or introduces something in contrast. Brötzmann opens with impassioned calls on tárogató accompanied by glistening, slightly queasy guitar arpeggios. He moves to vibrato-laden tenor, building into smeared bursts of energy urged on by Leigh’s warped slide guitar, edged with distortion. On clarinet, an instrument for which Brötzmann reserves some of his most reflective and lyrical playing, his brooding melody is supported by quivering tremolos, jolted by abrupt changes in tuning.
In Salford, the duo raised the temperature to boiling point with Leigh’s incessant riff and Brötzmann blasting though the ceiling, before ending on a dreamier note.