Pedal steel virtuoso Susan Alcorn moves away from country toward free improvisation, tango, and more | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

Pedal steel virtuoso Susan Alcorn moves away from country toward free improvisation, tango, and more 

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click to enlarge Susan Alcorn

Susan Alcorn

David Lobato

Baltimore pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn occupies a world unto herself in numerous ways that make the sounds she creates unlike anything else out there. Thanks to her parents, she was surrounded by music during her childhood in Florida, and she eventually took up the guitar. During a stint in Chicago in the mid-70s she became transfixed by the pedal steel after hearing it in a local country band. She picked up one herself, and after relocating to Houston, Texas, in 1981 she began playing it in a number of country bands. Though most folks imagine that’s the only where the lap steel belongs, Alcorn had other ideas—which she’s explored over the last two decades. She’s inventively adapted the music of mercurial French composer Olivier Messiaen as well as tango nuevo master Astor Piazzolla for her instrument in wholly unexpected, melodically ravishing ways, while simultaneously developing a rigorous free-improvisation practice. Due to her unique talent and versatility, she’s been able to find space for all of these interests. I’ve heard few things over the last several years that are more beautiful and lyric than her 2015 album Soledad (Relative Pitch), a sumptuous homage to Piazzolla’s music. Alcorn deftly concentrates his dramatic contrapuntal gems for the woozy, liquid sprawl of pedal steel, and the emotional pulse of the tango fights through the gorgeous glissandos, melodic curves, and sonic swells she unleashes with breathtaking concision. “Suite for Ahl” deviates a bit, with Alcorn teaming up with bassist Michael Formanek for an improvised duet that pushes the general tone into abstraction and mild turbulence without breaking the spell. In recent years Alcorn has also excelled in avant-garde contexts, working with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and serving as a potent foil for guitarist Mary Halvorson in her fantastic octet. Last year Alcorn appeared on jazz bassist Max Johnson’s In the West (Clean Feed), deftly filling nooks and crannies in the rhythmic motion of the leader, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Mike Pride, and serving up poignant solos with a mixture of tangled dissonance and tuneful tendrils. For this rare Chicago visit Alcorn will improvise in a trio with pianist Jim Baker and bassist Anton Hatwich as well as a duo with percussionist Ryan Packard. On Monday she performs solo, followed by a conversation with Ken Vandermark.   v

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