A Resonant, Dynamic, Sometimes Haunting New Album by Pedal Steel Icon Susan Alcorn
Susan Alcorn is this era’s great master of jazz pedal steel. Her music can be stark and haunting, vast and atmospheric, but also riotously funny. If Buddy Emmons was the Charlie Parker of the pedal steel, Alcorn is its Messiaen. Her new quintet album Pedernal is streaming at Bandcamp.
The album opens with the title track, the bandleader’s spare, desolate minor-key blues theme joined by bassist Michael Formanek’s looming accents and then an altered march from drummer Ryan Sawyer as guitarist Mary Halvorson shadows the melody. They pulse in and out of space bubbles, get loopy and coyly chaotic, with a fleeting break for violinist Mark Feldman before returning to an Appalachian ballad without words.
Circular Ruins, inspired by a Utah landscape, has Alcorn at the center of an acidic pool, the band around her fililng out the space with uneasy atmospherics or jagged accents. A subtly playful violin/bass conversation over Sawyer’s muted flutter finally draws Alcorn back into the picture, where she adds echoing, otherworldly, gonglike accents, Feldman fueling an austere haze. The ending will give you goosebumps: this place is haunted!
R.U.R. is Alcorn in amusing mode, with a tongue-in-cheek, quasi-cartoon theme, warpy bubbles from the guitar and steel over a floating swing that drops out as the carbonation bubbles over. The austere washes afterward only last so long before Alcorn brings the revelry back.
The album’s big epic is Night in Gdansk, keeningly atmospheric at first and then slowly coalescing: the way the whole band throw off sparks alluding to a calm folk ballad is artful to the extreme. Hints of Angelo Badalamenti and Bernard Herrmann filter through persistently uneasy ambience; austere resonance alternates with playful, clustering squiggles and blips.
They close the album with Northeast Rising Sun, a rousing, anthemic portrait of Alcorn’s native Baltimore that evokes early Pat Metheny without the ubiquitous chorus pedal. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the year.