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