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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Susan Alcorn Quintet - Pedernal (Relative Pitch, 2020) *****

By Matthew Banash

“Cinematic”...okay, got that out of the way.

My Holy Trinity of Pedal Steel players are as follows: Bruce Kaphan, Hop Wilson, and Susan Alcorn. The pedal steel guitar in music other than Country & Western starts out like the elephant in the room, and then it becomes what it is music, be it “ambient,” “blues” or “jazz,” respectively. So now that fussy categorization is out of the way. Really it just gave me a chance to name check Bruce Kaphan and especially Hop Wilson.

Jazz may stress the collective in Alcorn’s case as opposed to the individual in the examples of Kaphan and Wilson but what ultimately matters is now what they play, but how they play it. Pedernal’s appeal is its serious playfulness. These aren’t heavy-handed artists making something for what it can be; they play see we can hear what is. As Alcorn is quoted in the press release, “I view the...pedal steel guitar, not as an object to be mastered but as a partner with which we share with the listener a meaning, depth and hopefully a profound awareness of each unique moment we’re together.”

Joining Alcorn on pedal steel we hear and enjoy Michael Formanek on bass, Ryan Sawyer on drums, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Mark Feldman on violin. Though there are larger and smaller groups than a quintet, five musicians can make a dense sound. However, Alcorn utilizes dyads and triads in deft arrangements so each musician gets an opportunity to contribute, shine and move the music. It unfolds and progresses sometimes languidly, sometimes scaling heights, but it is never encumbered by theory. The separation of the production also allows each voice to have their distinct place from which to play along or contrapuntally.

"Pedernal," Spanish for “flint hill,” is a narrow mesa that lies on the north flank of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico. It sets a conceptual and musical theme for the recording as well. Alcorn open appropriately as the heat shimmers and rises, any fata morgana dwarfed by the impressive mountains. Alcorn contrasts the solid contrasted with the ethereal throughout the album. The group is unified until the temp changes and we’re off to dyads and triads, loping and Frisellesque noodling as the tune allows all the players to settle in before concluding as it opens, with Alcorn’s doleful, sweeping pedal steel playing.

'Circular Ruins' was inspired by the Anasazi dwellings in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, between Cortez, Colorado and Blanding, Utah on the Cajon Mesa of the Great Sage Plain. Percussive rumbles open the tune then Alcorn and Feldman join sonic forces to ascend and Halvorson enters to counter Feldman’s mournful playing. Here, too is where a lot of the sound, though separated sonically, blends into a visual impression. Formanek takes a solo like a horn’s deep bellow. Alcorn again utilizes the dyads and triads effectively. The trio of Sawyer, Formanek and Feldman halfway through the piece allows your imagination to run wild.

'R.U.R', inspired by the science fiction play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum's Universal Robots) and introduced the word "robot" to the English language and to science fiction in 1921. It’s a fun track, with an almost bop opening before the strings splay it and the rhythm section urges them on into a free-form languid jam with echoes of Americana taking it out.

'A Night in Gdansk' is pensive, languid, piquant but can take flight at any moment. There is a contemporary despair to the tune, that feeling of misplacement across land and time zones. Yet at the 5’30” mark there's a sense of spiritual unity when the instruments and musicians find a common tonal ground. At the 8’30” mark we hear Alcorn's pedal steel not so much as the centerpiece of this album but more of the recording touchstone, its unique aural qualities defining the session’s “esprit de corps.” That the track sustains this over 13 minutes illustrates how time can get in the way of our perception.

'Northeast Rising Sun', influenced by road signs along I-95 in her native Baltimore is a joyous, playful, and soulful conclusion. After some open mic lessons from the band on how to count it off, which gives the track a loose, end of session vibe, Sawyer rolls in and fun commences. There’s a mini-orchestra tone to my ear as Alcorn again uses duos and trios, shifting dynamics and interplay and Formanek plays a nice solo. Blues cry with a classical pitch.

Susan Alcorn Quintet is composed of talented artists who use their skills and musical reference points not to reinvent the wheel or polishing the mirror. Under her aegis they simply and masterfully create a recording of grace, subtlety, unity, and compelling musicianship that balances and investigates the modern and the ancient.


Dom Minasi said...

Susan, besides being a great artist is a wonderful person too. I am so happy that she is getting the recognition she deserves.