By now, creative music fans know Susan Alcorn for her feat in bringing the pedal steel guitar to New York’s downtown music scene, with guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Octet and with other knotty improvising collectives. But Alcorn hasn’t entirely forsaken her past playing in country bands. And that’s what makes her playing sound so refreshing still, even as she has gotten used to the idea of WHOA, PEDAL STEEL ON A JAZZ RECORD!
Alcorn’s new recording features a quintet from the contemporary jazz universe of New York, though Alcorn is based in Baltimore. Pedernal has a sound akin to the chamber-jazz-Americana that Bill Frisell has made his brand, but it has a distinctive sound as well. The guitarist is Halvorson, whose idiosyncratic use of a pedal effect can cause her sound to swirl and bend—in a manner that sometimes mimics Alcorn’s steel guitar. Mark Feldman is on violin, and he is also a master of the kind of microtonal movement that a fretless instrument allows. The result is a “string band” that can lock into a tightly arranged tune that might be suitable for dobro master Jerry Douglas and then can loosen outward into a free-improvising ensemble that tests the limits of chromatic tonality. As ever, country music and bent-note blues are cousins who love each other.
“Northeast Rising Sun” is the signature track—an Americana/folk theme, taken at a spritely and dancing mid-tempo, as consonant and “inside”-sounding as a bluegrass tune. The band kick it off joyously with handclaps, after which Drummer Ryan Sawyer and bassist Michael Formanek (Halvorson’s Thumbscrew collaborator) bring a snap and polyrhythmic punch to the fun. You are hooked, with a short stop-time section, and then the first solo out of the gate is by Halvorson, disrupting the sense of “simplicity” but not the sense of play. Her phrasing and attack have a familiarity, but her note choices and swirling pedalwork make the solo sound schizophrenic—utterly controlled and somehow spinning outward. But it’s quick too: the ensemble return, and then it’s Feldman’s turn, then Formanek’s, and finally that of the leader. It’s not hard to imagine it all as the music necessary for a hoe-down set in a loose dream, a square dance on the moon.
“Pedernal” follows in that manner, with a charming head arrangement that sounds like a stately country tune with a minor cast. The tune is stated as a few counter-melodies, contrapuntally, and then it shifts into several key changes, taking on a slightly baroque structure. Alcorn’s steel, Halvorson’s electric guitar, and Feldman’s violin move together through a series of leaps and harmonic shifts—not a set of jazz “chord changes” but guided portions of arrangement that keep upping the stakes of the tune’s creativity. But it’s not ponderous. Rather, the band play within this structure on this charming theme with a sense of deft ease.
The improvising on a tune like this has a controlled intelligence. This is not a program of extended individual solos or maximum freedom, but something closer to the chamber jazz pioneered decades ago or the chamber folk of a band like Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers. But Alcorn and company bring a sophisticated ability to improvise freely within tight constraints from the jazz tradition. In the moment and authentic collective conversation, they find ways to hew to the compositions’ direction while also operating with creative freedom.
Two of the performances on Pedernal sound more explicitly like open scenarios for improvisation. “Circular Ruins” is a moody and impressionistic exploration of sonic landscape that might have come from a slightly experimental ECM date from the 1970s. Sawyer opens with a short essay in cymbal color, followed by a haunting melody for Alcorn adorned by bowed bass and violin. Several other composed sections follow, with rippling arpeggios, precise chamber-music counter melodies, and washes of atmosphere. The improvisation episodes that follow are powerfully controlled and relatively brief, some jazz-like in being based on rhythmic interplay, and others more focused on melody and timbre.
“Night in Gdansk” unfolds a bit more traditionally as a dark ballad, with Alcorn playing a beautiful but unusual melody that eventually slips into abstraction. Two minutes, it is starting to become unclear whether the band is improvising or working from a score, or more likely both. However, within another 90 seconds, the pace of invention picks up into a greater sense of surprise, but no less focus. At any given moment, Formanek or Feldman, Halvorson, or Alcorn may be etching an improvised line in the foreground while the rest of the band seems to know exactly the right backdrop, even if it is not set to a traditional tempo or pattern (though sometimes it is).
Too often, there is a divide between the dance impulse and the artistic impulse in creative music. Pedernal sounds beautiful and interesting, daring and ethereal, folky or Great Plains-y. But Alcorn, often enough, is attentive to the blues impulse on an instrument that, after all, has its roots in Hawaiian music and has found a critical footing in gospel music. She taps into more traditional jazz as well as free improvisation on “R.U.R.”, with its hopping swing pattern and a peppy melody of short phrases that wander and mesh, just a bit like a Basie chart. However, the sense of tradition breaks up into a mostly atonal collective improvisation after the head arrangement. It isn’t consonant, but it is fun, with the sense of momentum carrying the band, even as the guitars swirl into a psychedelic phantasm. But Alcorn adds a hip composed part of violin and guitar that bridges the piece into a darker, tempo-less section that becomes a particularly evocative and open landscape for the band to play a series of washes and held tones. That it, of course, pops back to the lively theme (this is a more traditional track, after all) is neither a surprise nor without the delight of contrast.
At just over 40 minutes and only five tracks, Pedernal qualifies as a terse and focused essay for a unique quintet. The music is charming and melodic, but Feldman, Alcorn, and Halvorson—each of whom loves to move from playing precise passages to sabotaging the landscape with weirdly-bent-note twists—bring all kinds of wondrous creative improvising. Bakersfield meets the Stone in Greenwich Village, with some of the ethereal beauty and melodic impressionism of an ECM recording mixed in. Somehow, in keeping the album relatively short, Susan Alcorn makes it more substantial, with each track bearing more repetition, which each performance deserves.