From Texas, and Scotland, with love

Levontin 7 celebrates 13th birthday with pedal-steel guitarist extraordinaire Heather Leigh and German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann.

July 20, 2019 21:22
HEATHER LEIGH: ‘I was also an only child, so I spent a lot of time on my own in my bedroom listening

HEATHER LEIGH: ‘I was also an only child, so I spent a lot of time on my own in my bedroom listening to music.’. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Once in a while local diehards of left-field artistic fare get a chance to lick their lips and immerse themselves in the free-flowing creative endeavor of musicians who like to leave much of their output to serendipity. Heather Leigh certainly answers to the latter description and she will be strutting her largely unfettered musical stuff this evening (Sunday) at the Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv, which is currently celebrating its 13th anniversary.

First off, regardless of who is on stage, that’s a proud record to put out there. The club has generally operated beyond the Establishment pale and, somehow, probably largely by mixing its entertainment rosters across a very broad stretch of genres and styles, club owner, and veteran jazz saxophonist, Assif Tsahar has kept the venture ticking over. There have also been quite a few memorable evenings over the past 13 years, one of which happened last Wednesday as feted American jazz guitarist Bill Frisell made his first visit over here for many moons in the company of compatriots longtime collaborator bassist Thomas Morgan, and dynamic drummer Rudy Royston. The basement Levontin joint was packed to the rafters and the mood in the audience was one of undisguised enthrallment.

Tsahar lived and worked in New York for over a decade and a half, most of which was spent applying his evolving skills to the avant garde side of the jazz tracks. That included co-founding the Vision Festival, the world’s most important free jazz event. So, bringing people like Leigh and her colleague for the evening, German saxophonist extraordinaire Peter Brötzmann, is a treat for the boss, too. The 78-year-old Brötzmann has been blowing up a storm across the world’s stages for over half a century, and has graced the Levontin stage several times over the years. Although she is 38 years his junior, Leigh has been catching the eye and ear across Europe, and beyond, for some time herself.

Naturally, the 40-year-old pedal steel guitar player and vocalist, who hails from Texas, but has been based in Scotland for 15 years – in itself a curious confluence – feeds off different vibes than her venerable partner in musical adventure. However, as their ongoing performing and recording association shows, they have achieved a highly fertile common language. Part of that is down to their definitively open approach, both to their own output, and how they perceive the sounds around them.

Leigh says they both like to stick to the fundamentals. “It is interesting, the discussions we have about his own approach to music, which is similarly untutored – Peter doesn’t read music. I’ll never, one of the earliest conversations we had, it was after the first time we played together for the first time, and we knew at that moment we should do more, I said to him: ‘You should know something about me right away – I don’t read music, I don’t approach it that way, I don’t think in scales or notes, I can’t even tell what a note is.’ He just said, This is great, we’re going to get along just fine.’”

And they have been doing just that for some years now, performing across Europe and spending time in recording studios. Thus far they have made three albums together. It has been a productive and comfortable liaison although, mind you, “comfortable” seems like an incongruous phrase to attach to such an envelope pushing venture.  

Free-flowing synergy notwithstanding, Brötzmann and Leigh come from very different backdrops. While the septuagenarian German has been at the forefront of the European free jazz scene for over 50 years, Leigh grew up in 1980s Texas. That, of course, meant that her infant ears were open to a definitively contra-distinctive range of sounds. “I was really a music fanatic from as early as I can remember,” she notes.

“MY FIRST ventures into music were my parents’ record collection. There were a few early things that had a big effect on me. I had one of these old Fisher-Price plastic record players. You could get story books that came with record players – a bit like Disney stuff. One that always struck me was Peter and the Wolf.” Prokofiev’s so-called “symphonic fairytale for children” is a great place for any kid to start out on their musical road, and provides for a multisensory introductory experience. “I was so captivated, in particular, by how, in the story, the sounds were the animals and the people. I found that so mysterious.”

Leigh was drawn to a broad range of sounds and senses from the word go. She cites “house records” which she calls “essentially sound effects” and American pop singer Rita Coolidge’s 1977 hit single “We’re All Alone” among other early influences. The latter tugged on Leigh’s heartstrings, while its sonic and visual packaging evoked an oxymoronic awareness in the youngster. “That struck because I thought, look at this beautiful vision on the cover and the music is so melancholy. I was so struck by the music. I was so intrigued by this combination, of this kind of angelic beauty on the cover and this deep sort of sadness I was hearing too.”

Living in Texas also meant that Leigh’s developing musical consciousness was informed by the blues and folk music, and just anything and everything that came without hearing range. She says she was “a huge Madonna fan when she was around 10 years old,” but was always looking to stretch her field of aural perception, and willing to jump in at the deep end. “I was a member of one those cassette clubs they had back then which advertised at the back of magazines. If you signed up you got 10 cassettes for free every month.” Leigh had no idea what she going to get in the mail, but was perfectly happy to take her chances.

“I was really going at it blind, based on covers or names, or anything in what, I think they called the alternative section at that time – whatever they called that section which was the weird stuff,” she laughs. “This was pre-Internet, of course, so I was drawing my end connection by reading liner notes, and staring at covers. I was also an only child, so I spent a lot of time on my own, in my bedroom, listening to music.”

The teenager was off somewhere in her own imaginary world, flying high into cultural-musical spheres that sparked her imagination and transported her to uncharted climes. She just let it all in, regardless of the source. “Even at that early age I wasn’t really drawing distinctions between high brown music and low brow music,” she recalls. Even so, she had already begun fine-tuning a penchant for the weird and wonderful. “I still really love pop music, but in my heart I was mostly attracted to the one-offs, to the strange stuff, to those kinds of voices that I felt were, somehow, being true to their voice that was really coming through.”

It was soon time to put aural pleasure into hands on practice, and Leigh began trying out on all kinds of instruments. “I studied ethnomusicology,” she observes, “and on my first album I played the cuatro, which is a Venezuelan four-string instrument. It is really beautiful.” In addition to pedal steel guitar, her instrumental arsenal also takes in acoustic guitar, electric guitar, keyboards, psaltery, drums, bass, and harmonica. That leaves her with plenty of room for stylistic and textural maneuver. “I sing and when play electric guitar, and also with the cuatro, I play with the slide. I think the attraction to playing with the slide certainly comes from my love of playing the blues, and maybe also the sonic qualities with the voice, really being able to slide [vocally] with the notes. And, maybe, also not having to be stuck with playing chords, and being able to move between the notes.”

There will be plenty of “moving between the notes”, along with Br Brötzmann this evening at Levontin. The audience will, no doubt, be expecting the unexpected, and be up for the ride.

For tickets and more information: 03-560-5084 and

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