Susan Alcorn Quintet: Pedernal

Troy Dostert By

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Susan Alcorn Quintet: Pedernal
Pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn has achieved the enviable feat of commanding her own instrumental niche in the jazz world. Much like Toots Thielemans' harmonica, Gary Versace's accordion or Bela Fleck's banjo, she seems to have a unique role all to herself, at least until her substantial talents eventually spawn a host of imitators. From her beginnings playing traditional country and western in the 1980s, she has branched out considerably, in the last decade forging creative partnerships in the free improvisation and avant-jazz communities, working with a distinguished list of artists that includes Mary Halvorson, Ellery Eskelin, Michael Formanek, Nate Wooley, Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark, among many others. Capable of crafting scintillating solo statements or generating richly nuanced atmosphere, her astonishing versatility has allowed her to contribute to a vast array of projects. But it is encouraging to see her getting some additional exposure as a leader in her own right, with the elliptical and entrancing Pedernal.

With five of her own compositions in tow, Alcorn is joined on the album by guitarist Halvorson, whose Away With You (Firehouse 12, 2016) was one of the notable releases that raised Alcorn's visibility significantly in the creative jazz world. Frequent collaborator bassist Formanek, drummer Ryan Sawyer and violinist Michael Feldman round out the quintet. The album's opener and title track, "Pedernal," is a gem, with a memorable folk-like melody and expert use of all five musicians, particularly the lyrical talents of Feldman and a charged dialogue between Halvorson and Alcorn, in evoking the wide-open landscape of northern New Mexico and the mesa for which the piece is named. The closer, "Northeast Rising Sun," is similarly engaging, with the band adding some joyful hand-claps to a piece that also seems inspired by Alcorn's folk/country roots, though the tune itself is derived from the Sufi devotional tradition. It also showcases Halvorson's most rangy solo on the record, a characteristically devilish tone-twisting wonder.

The middle three tracks reveal the more oblique side to Alcorn's muse, with more undetermined space and a more elusive feel. "Circular Ruins" paints a multihued sonic vista with impressionistic crests and valleys, and a series of unfolding ideas which offer ample surprises, not the least of which is a punchy collective improvisation with Sawyer's bold forays setting the pace. The jaunty "R.U.R." starts at a brisk clip, but it too opens unstructured possibilities in its second half which rely on the players' spontaneous gestures and subtle exchanges. The longest cut, "A Night in Gdansk," is a languid, expansive track which takes thirteen minutes to develop, with moments of quiet beauty interspersed with austere abstraction. It is the perfect vehicle for Alcorn's distinctive blend of the familiar and the uncanny, and a terrific encapsulation of this stage of her development as a composer.

Track Listing

Pedernal; Circular Ruins; R.U.R.; A Night in Gdansk; Northeast Rising Sun.


Susan Alcorn: guitar, steel; Mark Feldman: violin; Michael Formanek: bass, acoustic; Mary Halvorson: guitar; Ryan Sawyer: drums.

Album information

Title: Pedernal | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Relative Pitch Records

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