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.
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.
Elliott Sharp/Matteo Liberatore, Nels Cline/Susan Alcorn, Raoul Bjorkenheim /Anders Nilsson are among the guitarists featured in Guitar Moderne who have teamed up for a bunch of concerts to start of the summer festival year. And as a bonus a new duet concert with Stian and Sidsel, with Stian on a new guitar! Thanks to Don Mount for documenting the NYC avant scene.
Sidsel Endresen & Stian Westerhus at DOM
We are in the heart of the festival season. Here is a Festival we all would love to see. Beginning with this match made in avant heaven.
Medeski Martin & Wood with Nels Cline – Cully Jazz Festival 2014
The potential of the pedal steel guitar is criminally under utilized. If you are unfamiliar with the pedal steel, check out my short history here. This complex and gorgeous sounding instrument is too often restricted to playing country music clichés. Though country steel can be heartbreakingly beautiful and some players have explored its jazz capabilities, all too few have investigated more modern uses for this harmonically rich instrument. Susan Alcorn is one of those few. Fully versed in the country tradition she has traversed new paths with the pedal steel, applying its singular attributes (contrary motion string bending, volume swells, natural sustain) to everything from free improvisation to Astor Piazzolla.