Pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn has expanded her instrument’s domain well beyond the familiar sounds native to Hawaii, Nashville, or Bakersfield. She’s influenced by those traditions, of course, as well as the folk and blues of the Woodstock era (a chance encounter with Muddy Waters inspired her ambition to become a professional musician). Since the early ’90s, she’s also become a devotee of the music and philosophy of composer Pauline Oliveros. She has spent several decades in the “downtown” music scene, performing with luminaries like Evan Parker, LaDonna Smith, Ingrid Laubrock, and Fred Frith.
Her most high-profile recent gig has been as a member of the Mary Halvorson Octet. Alcorn is an integral part of that group’s superb 2016 album Away with You, and at times her new recording has some of the same distinctive flavor of the MH8. Alcorn leads a quintet—with Halvorson, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Ryan Sawyer—through five stellar pieces that recall both the big-sky country traditions of her instrument and the thorny, rigorous interplay that are her bandmates’ calling cards. There are knotty guitar duets, sweeter ones with bass and violin, and a sense of surprise at every turn. In its balance between complexity and accessibility with prominent string and guitar work, Pedernal is reminiscent of Tomeka Reid’s fine 2019 effort Old New. Alcorn’s playing is richly evocative, but it never settles into genre. She’s an individualist, with a unique sound and vision.