Susan Alcorn Quintet — Pedernal
(Bandcamp Relative Pitch RPR1111, 2020, CD / DL)
by Peter Thelen, Published 2020-12-20
When one thinks of pedal steel guitar, the next thought is usually country music or possibly Hawaiian music, and although the former is where Alcorn started many years ago after first taking up the instrument, she has since expanded her musical universe well beyond where most would expect to find the sound of the steel guitar. She credits the influence of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, John and Alice Coltrane, and Pauline Oliveiros among many others of having propelled her on her expansive musical trajectory over the last 25 years or so. Alcorn has been a member of the Mary Halvorson Octet, playing on their 2016 release Away with You, so when it came time to choose musicians for her own quintet to record her compositions on Pedernal, Halvorson was a logical choice. Also featured are double bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Ryan Sawyer, and violinist Mark Feldman. While most of the musicians involved would suggest this would be a jazz ensemble, Alcorn’s varied compositions are not that easily pigeonholed, with equal amounts of Classical and open improvisation to be important elements of her composition style. Pedernal contains only five numbers, each very different from the others, with plenty of surprises throughout. “Circular Ruins” is a very explorative piece, morphing all the time as it goes forward, some parts jazz, some other parts improv, and yet other parts that are truly genre defying, such that by its near-ten minute conclusion the listener will have been on some kind of mystical journey that can’t quite be quantified. Opening the proceedings is the title track, with a gentle dreamy disposition and some folk and classical influences. Likewise, the folky flavored “Northeast Rising Sun” is perhaps the strongest melody here, blended nicely with jazz and improvisational elements to make for a true enigmatic invention. The thirteen minute “Night in Gdansk” begins in a moody introspective way with what is essentially a pedal steel solo, the others soon join in as the composition slowly takes shape and the exploration begins in earnest, with about six or seven distinct sections to the piece. The playful “R.U.R.” offers some strictly musical humor across its six minute duration, reminding the listener that these musicians were probably having a great time while the album was shaping up. Throughout, Pedernal offers the listener some interesting twists and unusual references amid its stunning beauty.
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