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With 'Pedernal,' Susan Alcorn Expands Pedal Steel Guitar's Range

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn started out in East Texas country and Western bar bands, but she heard a larger role for the pedal steel beyond country music. That led her to jazz and free improvisation and working up solo versions of Astor Piazzolla tangos and collaborating with other unclassifiable musicians. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Alcorn's new album is beyond category.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUSAN ALCORN QUINTET'S "A NIGHT IN GDANSK")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, a horizontal slide guitar where you change the tuning of the strings as you play using foot pedals and knee pads. Pedal steel guitar with its slippery singing tone is a staple of country music. Susan Alcorn bends it around odd corners, going places its inventers didn't envision, which is also the story of the saxophone. She doesn't neglect pedal steel's sweeping melodic qualities, the way it can make any tune sound like an anthem. But she'll undermine that slippery grace like she's sliding on ice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUSAN ALCORN QUINTET'S "PEDERNAL")

WHITEHEAD: That's "Pedernal," title track from pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn's new quintet CD on one of those indie labels that keep unclassifiable music going, Relative Pitch. The responsive rhythm section is jazz bassist Michael Formanek, who's played with her a bunch, and Texas rocker turned improviser Ryan Sawyer on drums. On guitar is Alcorn's champion and dependable ally, Mary Halvorson. Whenever these pickers team up, it's special. Halvorson has her own ear for sliding tonality and complex string rhythms.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUSAN ALCORN QUINTET'S "NORTHEAST RISING SUN")

WHITEHEAD: To play this music that resists classification, Susan Alcorn drafted violinist Mark Feldman, who regularly works the zone between jazz and new composed music. But before that, he had another life as a Nashville session cat. That experience taught Feldman how to pack and pace a 30-second solo. On Alcorn's "Northeast Rising Sun," Mike Formanek's thwacked bass is the violin's trampoline.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUSAN ALCORN QUINTET'S "NORTHEAST RISING SUN")

WHITEHEAD: The music on Susan Alcorn's album "Pedernal" roams an open range betwixt jazz and improvised music and rock and country. There's something to appeal to and maybe put off several radio formats, like it's, say, too country or not enough. One piece is something like a jazz tune, a nod to the many pedal steel players who dip into swing and bebop as little attention as they get from jazz folk. But once past the melody, this band wanders its own way. Susan Alcorn isn't the first to expand pedal steel guitar's range, but she's taken it farther than most, putting the instrument on a broader map.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUSAN ALCORN QUINTET'S "R.U.R.")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Pedernal," the new album by pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new true crime story about the murder of a Harvard graduate student. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S "SURPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.