When Stian Westerhus posted on his Facebook page about participating on a new record it sent me down a rabbit hole that led to one of the best modern improvising ensembles I have ever seen. One of Belgian drummer Teun Verbruggen’s many projects is a quartet called Warped Dreamer, featuring himself on drums and electronics, Arve Henriksen on trumpet and electronics, Stian on guitar and electronics, and Jozef Dumoulin on Fender Rhodes and electronics. These videos from 2014 show how four top-notch instrumentalists, who are also highly conversant with the use of processing and electronics, can come together to make dynamic, boundry-less but cohesive music. Beautifully shot and recorded, it is a shame that it doesn’t exist as an unedited whole, if only because it feels like a few minutes are missing here and there. Still, it is necessary viewing for any modern guitarist. Look for the new record on Consouling Sounds February 26.
Pedal steel guitarists operate on another level. In addition to coordinating two hands, they must operate pitch-changing pedals with one foot, a volume pedal with the other, and levers with their knees. They also might be operating over 12 strings, with octaves that are nowhere near each other. To all that, Susan Alcorn adds tunings that are unusual even for pedal steel, and a propensity, not just for music that is outside the usual country fare, but outside in general. She is one of the rare steel players who is exploring the unique potential of the instrument beyond the normal roots and pop boundaries. Her latest record, Perdernal [Relative Pitch], made my top 10 list for 2020. On it she is joined by guitarist Mary Halvorson and violinist Mark Feldman, two other players who push the limits of their instruments. We talk about Pedernal, as well as The Heart Sutra, a record of her compositions arranged by Janel Leppin, on which she doesn’t appear. Even if you don’t play pedal steel you will enjoy this conversation.
If you are like me, you could stare covetously at the beautiful Island Instruments 12-string he is playing for the whole 20 minutes. But while doing so, Phelps gives great insight into his process when making loops with his desktop system.
Many of this year’s picks were recorded before 2020, for obvious reasons. Works by veterans (Sharp, Alcorn, Björkenheim) joined some newer voices (Naylor, Yalvaç, Gargaud) in offering us quality distractions from a nightmarish year. If you hear anything you like, please purchase something from the artist. With touring off the table, times are tougher than usual for experimental artists.
Live music on any scale seems somewhat in the future so enjoy this virtual festival, featuring Marc Ribot, David Kollar, Eivind Aarset, Ben Monder, and more during these holidays, and may yours be safe and happy.