It may be impossible for anyone to free the pedal steel guitar entirely from its roots in country music but, if anyone can, Susan Alcorn would have to be the leading candidate. She has a phenomenal range on the instrument, capable of everything from folk-drenched Americana to abstract excursions, and she will sometimes combine her variegated tendencies on the same release, as she did on Pedernal (Relative Pitch Records, 2020), using a quintet to embody her atmospheric meditations. Here she teams up with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and cellist Leila Bordreuil, and the results are just as transfixing.
The majority of the album is freely improvised, and the opener, "Area 41," perfectly encapsulates the air of mystery which prevails in much of Alcorn's music. Bordreuil's deeply resonant cello communes with Alcorn's capacious gestures, and Laubrock joins with breathy flutterings and longer, sustained notes. The track possesses a strange momentum and palpable sense of unease, with a seething subterranean energy, yet the overall effect is to draw the listener into the recording, to see where things may go next. And other pieces open up similar terrain, with "Bird Meets Wire" seeing a more animated Alcorn fueling Laubrock's surging leaps over Bordreuil's drones, and "Topology of Time" providing an elongated, fragmented exploration which never flags despite its eleven-plus minute duration. "The Fourth World" delves into another sinuous world of sound, with Alcorn's arpeggios spurring delicate ruminations from Laubrock which evince a fragile beauty.
But Alcorn's muse can also lead her in less rarefied directions. "Cañones (El Pueblo Unido)" and "Indigo Blue (Wayfarin' Stranger)" make contact with folk and protest music traditions, and although they are hardly straightforward renditions, they reveal the way in which Alcorn's forbidding soundscapes can sometimes give way to a poignant lyricism. Built loosely on the Chilean protest song "El Pueblo Unido," "Cañones" has Alcorn at her most melodic, as her articulation of the simple tune floats alongside Laubrock's repeated staccato rhythms and Bordreuil's gentle dissonance. And there is a similar magic on "Wayfarin' Stranger," with a graceful treatment that avoids falling into sentimentality by leaving room for all three musicians to explore the tune's contours freely.
Somehow inhabiting a place that seems simultaneously recognizable and disorienting, this superb trio of improvisers successfully creates a musical vocabulary all its own on this mesmerizing release.
Area 41; Bird Meets Wire; Is Is Not; Topology; Cañones (El Pueblo Unido); The Fourth World; Indigo Blue (Wayfarin’
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