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Unusual instruments, unique instrumentalists

Susan Alcorn has released the first album where she is the frontwoman. Brandee Younger documents sessions recorded during the pandemic. Both play two rather rare instruments in a unique and original way.

Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska

It’s not easy to get a pedal steel guitar on stage. Susan Alcorn always assembles the instrument on her own, as if it was a set of IKEA furniture – although, to me, she’s more like a magician who keeps taking new elements out of the hat to create this sophisticated structure. Alcorn has played the pedal steel guitar for a long time: she started out in the 1970s as a country musician – this instrument is strongly rooted in the genre. Apart from country music, you can also hear it in prog-rock, for instance (I still remember David Gilmour playing it in my home town, although he wasn’t using the exact same model). It took until the 1990s for Alcorn to dare to improvise – and just as well that she did! Now she’s exploring the instrument in many contexts, reaching for compositions by Olivier Messiaen, Astor Piazzolla, Ornette Coleman and Pauline Oliveros, among others, or playing with Ken Vandermark, Joe McPhee, Tom Carter, Eugene Chadbourne and Mary Halvorson.

Alcorn played with Halvorson in an octet on Away with You and on Nate Wooley’s Columbia Icefield. Especially the latter album occasionally reminds me of Pedernal. The characteristic sound of the guitar and pedal steel guitar complement each other, which is particularly clear in the amazing “R.U.R.”. The sisterhood between the two string instruments shines with the full spectrum and dynamics both when strips of melody emerge from the piece and when Halvorson brusquely moves her fingers across the strings. Yet the album would not have had the brilliant narrative structure had it not been for the attentive Ryan Sawyer on drums, who builds the responsive background to the music.Pedernal is a meticulously composed record, yet one that leaves room for a breather and some frivolity – like the melodious blues motif in the title track. This is when the quintet enters folk, and even dance territory, as emphasized by violinist Mark Feldman and bassist Michael Formanek (take the hit quality of “Northeast Rising Sun”, for example).This imparts a poetic sound to the complex, demanding arrangements (as Halvorson said herself in an interview).

One the one hand, Alcorn brilliantly arranges her ideas for small orchestrations (the finale of the aforementioned “R.U.R.”), on the other, she explores minimalist, delicate ideas, such as “A Night in Gdańsk”, initially written out as a solo piece. Here, the band delivers a tour de force of playing on the edge of silence, building a nuanced musical tissue of string and bow instruments. The quintet paints a broad musical spectrum – from dense forms to lyrical folk motifs.There is freedom here, but there’s also precision, and Pedernal maintains a balance between the two. There’s room for an ingenious composer and for instrumentalists following written out notes, but also bringing in their own element, which results in an engrossing and very refreshing album.

It’s equally difficult to get a harp on stage, not to mention transporting it. This is Brandee Younger’s instrument of choice. Her CV is equally impressive: she’s played with Lauryn Hill or The Roots, and last year she issued the interesting Soul Awakening. Another musician who appears on that record is Dezron Douglas, double bassist and privately Younger’s partner. During the pandemic, they played weekly sessions in their Harlem home, which they broadcasted to the whole world, and we may hear the effects in the form of a neat summary released by International Anthem. I watched these sets live on a few occasions and I felt I could listen to them on repeat forever (I listened to this one an infinite number of times).

Streaming comes with a whole host of problems: the music is devoid of live contact between artists and their audience, the shows may be of sub-par quality, the recordings are not made live. The duo solved all these problems on Force Majeure (these two words are written into all music contracts and this year, because of the pandemic, it’s been etched into everyone’s memory, which the duo ironically comments). I’m smiling every time Douglas sums up the pandemic year in the opening of the album: “If you haven’t lost your mind yet, God is good. If you have lost your mind, that’s cool too!”. Together with Younger, they don’t only play original material, and the album isn’t meant to attract your attention with masterful production, but with simplicity – the music is purely acoustic, recorded on a single microphone placed in the room. The duo filters the consonance between the double bass and the harp – a rather rare instrument in jazz – through their original language to the extent that I’m not so much focusing on the compositions as on the personalities of the musicians playing them. And that’s important, because their repertoire encompasses, among others, pieces by Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, The Stylistics, Kate Bush, Sting or the theme song from Sesame Street. A broad spectrum of musical tastes delivered with the wooden double bass sound and the fairy-tale-like lyricism of the harp, which sometimes reminds me of the African kora. Most importantly, though, this collection of hits is played with ease, without any baggage, with a lot of air. I feel as if I’m sitting in their room in Harlem. Force Majeure makes the pandemic time more bearable, and also proves that there are genuine pearls to be found in the flood of live-streamed music.

SUSAN ALCORN QUINTET Pedernal, Relative Pitch
DEZRON DOUGLAS & Brandee Younger Force Majeure, International Anthem