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Sex Tape Joseph Burnett , July 25th, 2017 08:02

A brutal sax-and-pedal-steel duel from Heather Leigh and Peter Brötzmann

Like the braying of two warhorns, the tenor sax of Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh’s pedal steel guitar surge forwards from the opening second of the single-track Sex Tape, their conjoined holler a storm of fury that sweeps all before it. If you don’t like free jazz, you might not be able to stop yourself from being carried along on such molten momentum, and if you do it will be like being swallowed whole by a truly visceral vortex.

In the process of touring and recording together, Heather Leigh and Peter Brötzmann have formed the kind of intuitive bond that makes all great duellist duos effective. Often heralded for his sheer potency, Brötzmann’s muscular approach to the saxophone and other wind instruments has not been dampened as he advances into his eighth decade, and on the opening segments of Sex Tape he unleashes squalls of frenetic, high-pitched notes as well as circular torrents of deeper skronks and honks. Heather Leigh matches him for pace and power, her fuzzy, saturated riffs mirroring the saxophonist’s notes, a seething undercurrent of caustic noise-drone for him to sail over and against. Their bond is clear - around ten minutes in, Brötzmann launches himself skywards in a blizzard of shrieking overtones and Leigh responds with an equally caustic blast of saturated feedback that expertly blurs the line between noise and melody.

Pedal steel and sax is a combination I’ve seen fail in the hands of lesser musicians. After all, the pedal steel is a potent instrument in its own right and one that, if used the way Leigh often does with lots of overdrive and effects, can submerge the entire sonic spectrum in hyper-fuzzed mulch. It is a testament to her skills as a musician and, above all, an improviser that she knows intuitively when to pull back and make space for Brötzmann and when to join him in full-blooded fury. Not that this should be a surprise. Brötzmann is constantly being underestimated as an artist because he is all-too-readily associated with barnstorming exercises like his seminal 1968 free jazz opus Machine Gun. Yet as influential and important as that and other albums were, Peter Brötzmann has always been a subtle and deeply musical artist and Leigh responds to this just as much as she does to the raucous free improv of the opening few minutes.

The most powerful moments on the single track that makes up Sex Tape come at around 20 minutes in. After a dizzying virtuoso display by Brötzmann on alto he leans gently into a contemplative solo which is picked up by Leigh. She carves gentle arpeggios into a slaloming escapade of her own, the hypnotic traces of her strings resonating with mystery and emotion. Earlier on, she deploys more sharply defined riffs redolent of her 2015 masterpiece I Abused Animal. This is echoed later on, after the quiet interlude, when the pair duet/duel in a maelstrom of squalling sax notes and almost heavy metal pedal steel riffage.

What a lucky audience those in attendance for this performance were. Not just because they would have felt the full force of Leigh and Brötzmann from the get-go, up close and personal, but because they were privileged to witness two premier musicians playing off each other’s musical talents, sensitivities and emotions in subtle, intricate and often brutally powerful ways.