The great country pedal-steel player Buddy Emmons had a serious brush with jazz (as witness his easy-swinging 1963 Verve album, Steel Guitar Jazz), but otherwise the instrument has not played much of a role in the genre. Mirage, on which pedal-steel innovator Susan Alcorn is teamed with tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and bassist Michael Formanek, isn’t always steeped in jazz. Its lush atmospheres and painterly effects frequently suggest cinematic or modern classical music. But in such stellar company, Alcorn reveals her gifts as a first-rate free improviser and collaborator.
Weather imagery dominates, as on the foreboding “Rain Shadow,” with its dark, drawn-out tones, and the briskly animated “Saturation,” on which Alcorn’s keening notes seem bonded to Formanek’s burrowing tones. Then there’s the 27-minute “Downburst,” on which the musicians play with a kind of 3D clarity in occupying their own distinctive space while also performing with unified purpose. Like the weather, the music can change, both gradually and suddenly. Around the seven-minute mark, it intensifies: The spaces between notes tighten and the rhythm gains urgency. But the opening of skies is rainbow-perfect, with more poetry than drama, more spare beauty than chaos.
Alcorn has remarkable range on her instrument; her playing can reflect its warm-toned Hawaiian origins or recall James Blood Ulmer with its jagged effects. Eskelin, always in his element (this is his third strong trio outing of the year, along with releases by his own Trio New York and Harris Eisenstadt’s September Trio), applies his classic tenor tone while holding its power in reserve. Formanek has such a beckoning voice, there are times you wish the clouds would part and let him solo for a good long stretch