By Dave Cantor | Published November 2020
Pedal steel doesn’t have to sound like Sneaky Pete Kleinow. And even if Charles Lloyd’s enlisted Gregory Leisz for his ensemble, The Marvels, there’s still room to roam on the instrument in just about any musical context.
Susan Alcorn—who’s been associated with avantists like guitarists Tom Carter and Eugene Chadbourne for decades—generally has gotten slotted into the experimental category during a career that stretches back to 1970s Texas and a clutch of country gigs. But there’s a tunefulness embedded in Pedernal’s outré moments, something that defies expectations of the avant-garde, the history of her chosen instrument, as well as the jazz genre.
For Pedernal, the pedal-steel player’s enlisted a cache of jazz performers, though—guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Michael Formanek among them. But it’s violinist Mark Feldman who contributes to the essential airiness here, dashing in and out of the space between Alcorn’s wavering tones on “R.U.R.” There’s also the purely exploratory “Circular Ruins,” where the quintet dispatches with time, gliding along Alcorn and Feldman’s strings to arrive at some dark intersection of jazz, classical, country and improv.
Hearing the bandleader count off “Northeast Rising Sun,” the closer, and dive into her melody might make listeners anticipate a classic country-style tune. But with Halvorson’s unassailable gambol, the song goes on to perfectly encapsulate the breadth of American music as drummer Ryan Sawyer shuffles a pulse and Formanek blithely injects his timekeeping with a swollen sense of melody that only could have been summoned during a joyous meeting of likeminded collaborators.