There are very few musicians like American pedal steel guitar player Susan Alcorn who can link so naturally an instrument inextricably linked to the music of Nashville and Hawaii to the transcendental music of French composer Olivier Messiaen, the works of Argentinian nuevo-tango composer Astor Piazzola and the Pakistani-Indian devotional Sufi Qawwali singing tradition or free jazz prophet Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics with the deep-listening philosophy of accordionist-composer Pauline Oliveros and the second Viennese school of composer Arnold Schönberg. «Pedernal» features Alcorn’s inclusive and singular, genre-bending vision with a new quintet and for the first time, with her own original compositions. Alcorn is accompanied on «Pedernal» by an intrepid dream-team, most of them are close comrades – guitarist Mary Halvorson (Alcorn plays in Halvorson’s Octet and both players in Nate Wooley’s «Columbia Icefield», (Northern Spy, 2019), double bass player Michel Formanek (a close musical confidant from his long residence in Baltimore), drummer Ryan Sawyer (who plays with Alcorn off and on for 12 years), and a new collaborator, violinist Mark Feldman.
Alcorn’s new five compositions are inspired by a month-long retreat in a remote casita in New Mexico where she soaked in the natural splendor, and particularly the iconic Cerro Pedernal mesa immortalized in many paintings of Georgia O’Keefe. These compositions encompass her idiosyncratic and subtle sonic universe, where the pedal steel guitar acts like an orchestral instrument, suggesting, in her words, a «profound awareness of each unique moment we’re together». «Pedernal» was recorded at Bunker Hill Studios in Brooklyn in November 2019.
The opening title-piece is a minor blues, introduced by the touching, beautiful pedal steel lines embraced by Formanek bass, but later builds its tension with spiky guitar lines of Halvorson and fractured rhythmic patterns of Sawyer before resolving into the lyrical theme. «Circular Ruins» is inspired by another spectacular setting, the Anasazi dwellings in Utah’s Hovenweep National Monument, and evokes a mysterious-spacious, chamber atmosphere, highlighting the organic role of Feldman in this new quintet and his immediate affinity with Alcorn. «R.U.R.» borrows its name from Czech writer Karel Čapek’s 1920 science fiction play «R.U.R.», which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, and here Alcorn takes her quintet to a series of playful games that stress the strong individual voices of this resourceful quintet.
The 13-minutes chamber «A Night in Gdansk» was written originally as a solo piece for pedal steel during an uneasy evening in the Polish port and later orchestrated it for the quintet. The new arrangement bridges the cosmic language of Messiaen with a moving, romantic theme, inspired by Alcorn’s retreat in New Mexico and, again, demonstrates the close interplay of Feldman and Alcorn. The album closes with the joyful and ecstatic «Northeast Rising Sun», employing a devotional Qawwali call-and-response refrain, ornamented with Irish folk dance steps.
«Pedernal» is a natural masterpiece. Delivered with majestic elegance and sheer beauty.
Susan Alcorn (pedal steel), Mary Halvorson (g), Michael Formanek (b), Mark Feldman (vio), Ryan Sawyer (dr)