Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The wandering healer: Peter Brötzmann live with Heather Leigh

Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh at Issue Project Room / June 7, 2017

It seems a little strange to say it, given the man's reputation and overall aesthetic, but what I'm sitting here thinking about now — marveling at, really — less than hour after the end of a Peter Brötzmann performance at Issue Project Room, is the man's generosity. In demeanor, he gives nothing: a trim, aloof man with an almost let's-get-this-over-with bearing. But in sound, he gives all.

Tonight's concert was a duo with Heather Leigh, a pedal-steel player and Brötzmann's partner on recent albums such as 2015's Ears Are Filled With Wonder and the newly released Sex Tape. I've seen Brötzmann many times; this might have been the first occasion where a drummer wasn't present. [Note, 6/8/17: Not quite true. I do remember catching an astonishing Brötzmann / William Parker duo gig at Tonic, which this list tells me was in April 2001.] I came in wondering if the music would somehow feel spare, lacking. Fortunately, the moment took over and all concerns dissipated — the musicians quickly got to work and held a concept aloft for roughly an hour.

The music, thanks in part to Leigh's gorgeously enveloping sound, sometimes chiming and delicate, other times overdriven, menacing and bubbling over with dark, ashy timbres, had a quality of hovering, as though a great craft were slowly taking off from the stage and hanging just above the ground. If Leigh provided the music's subtle thrust, Brötzmann was the exhaust, the residue of its liftoff, the dirt it displaced, the shards of ice that danced around it. The combination of the two was at times like hearing a man roaring into a waterfall: both sounds deafening but the saxophone (and later clarinet and tarogato) seeming somewhat buried within the vibrating din of the amplified strings. But there was an unperturbed quality to Brötzmann's phrases, a peace within the violence — though he roared, he stood still and did not visibly exert. His sound was as powerful as I've ever heard it — as gut-stabbingly true and poignant, as redolent of earth and sweat — but there seemed to be a new quality of balance taking hold, a resignation at once to press on through an imposing sound field that sometimes drowned him out and to surrender to its mass.

Not to say that Leigh seemed oblivious in the slightest. There was actually an extreme sensitivity at work, a sense of the players swapping foreground and background roles. As the music unfolded and Brötzmann traded the manly might of the tenor for the wobbly, sometimes fragile-sounding clarinet and haunting, reedy tarogato, Leigh would always recede at just the right moment to open a space for her partner, inviting Brötzmann to metaphorically lean in close, blessing the audience with a taste of the milder end of his gifts, his private-sounding murmurs, like a man telling himself a story beside a hearth. And then worrying a phrase, shaking his mouth back and forth over the mouthpiece to sort of wobble the sound, building back up into a growl or a gnash.

Brötzmann sets can sometimes feel like pure, bullheaded exertion, but this one had a quality of deep reflection. It was like the two were singing one hour-long dirge or elegy — an almost raga-like form, now that I think about it — with many peaks and valleys. There was a sense of bearing down on a single idea, sweating through the effort of concentration and focus. And Brötzmann, standing so still but producing such a massive, human noise and depth of expression. His is a sonic presence on the order of Milford Graves where, yeah, sure, you can listen to it all kinds of ways, in whatever medium you choose, but unless you're in the room with it, you aren't really hearing it. Words like "cry" or "shriek" seem to bounce off its true essence like rubber bullets off iron; what's there in the sound is nothing you can say succinctly. It's something you take in slowly, a warm, harsh, even caustic sort of mist; a blinding yet restorative light that feels truer and truer as both the man making it ages and the world around him becomes faster, more distracted/distractable, more violent and insane.

There was a brief encore, with Brötzmann playing celebratory figures, what seemed to me an explicit evocation of one of his (and us New Yorkers') patron saints, Albert Ayler. Truth had already long since marched in, had seeped into every corner of Issue's imposing, cavernous space, but during this brief coda, he graciously made his ancestral connection clear, an homage and a well-wishing. Ayler's prophet days were indelible but so brief. Peter Brötzmann by contrast has led a long and rich life. In his old age, he's something akin to a wandering healer, coming to town and, simply, without ceremony, filling each space he visits with a kind of raw grace, an unceremonious yet transcendent blast from the guts. Framed with Leigh's contributions, I heard that sound tonight — that old friend to my ears and spirit — in a new way. Wiser, almost, possibly more benevolent, but with as much fight as ever. Make no mistake, Peter Brötzmann is at a rare peak, and when he's gone, there will not be another like him.


*I'm proud of this lengthy 2011 Brötzmann Q&A. Whatever his manner might indicate, the man is a joy to converse with.

*And I thank Brötzmann for his vital and generous contributions to my Interstellar Space piece earlier this year.

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