Peter Brötzmann has spent more than 50 years repping the aggro fringe of free jazz. But the saxophonist behind famously abrasive Sixties sessions such as Machine Gun has always been a more nuanced player than his reputation as an air-raid-siren screamer would suggest. That’s why Sparrow Nights is a revelation. The 77-year-old German improviser has rarely sounded more vulnerable than he does on this set of atmospheric studio-recorded duets with American-born pedal-steel guitarist Heather Leigh, his frequent foil in recent years.
Many Brötzmann collaborators have engaged him in gladiator-style combat, as heard on another recent release from the saxist’s aptly named power trio Full Blast. Leigh instead emphasizes negative space. Set against her echoey, meditative swirls or harsh, pealing distortion (textures she combines with otherworldly vocals on a new solo album), Brötzmann — blowing hoarse laments or rough wails on a bevy of reeds, from bass sax to contra-alto clarinet and his customary tenor — often sounds like he’s interacting with the elements. The setting’s sparseness foregrounds the forlorn existential-blues pathos that’s been at the heart of his performances for decades. If Machine Gun was Brötzmann’s steely catharsis, Sparrow Nights is the haunted aftermath.