Susan Alcorn: Soledad
On Soledad, Susan Alcorn continues to dramatically extend the boundaries associated with the pedal steel guitar, with this time the Baltimore, Maryland-based musician performing solo renditions of Astor Piazzollo's ‘Nuevo Tango.' Needless to say, the soundworld presented on the recording is far removed from traditional Country & Western; if anything, Alcorn's playing has more in common with jazz guitar than any style originating out of Nashville. Alcorn's an innovator, yes, but a quietly subversive one, someone who effects change surreptitiously rather than confrontationally.
Having been profoundly influenced by figures such as John Coltrane, Edgar Varese, Muddy Waters, Buddy Emmons, Pauline Oliveros, and Olivier Messiaen, Alcorn in like spirit draws from multiple genres in her music, among them free jazz, avant-garde classical music, and Indian ragas. Her preferred format is solo performance, not because she doesn't enjoy playing with others but because the intimacy gained from playing alone proves so rewarding. The intimacy level is high on Soledad, as Alcorn plays four of the five settings by herself.
In Alcorn's hands, “Adiõs Nonino,” written by Piazzolla in October 1959 after his father's death, is suitably elegiac yet hardly one-dimensional. She alternates between ponderous and explorative passages, and the playful guitar-like theme that arrives halfway through invigorates the music with a jolt of energy. Piazzolla drew inspiration from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons for his own Cuatro Estaciones Portenas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), of which “Invierno Porteño” (Winter in Buenos Aires) is the second part. One of the composer's most beautiful settings, it's treated to a heartfelt reading by Alcorn that honours the original, and much the same might be said of her version of “Soledad” (Solitude), which smartly concentrates on distilling the dreamlike splendour of the haunting original arrangement into one for a single instrument.
Michael Formanek's contrabass playing (plucked and bowed) makes for a pleasing addition to “Suite for AHL,” Alcorn's sole original on the recording; if anything, his presence catalyzes her to play more freely, or perhaps it's simply that in tackling her own material she feels less beholden to follow Piazzolla's script. That said, the seventeen-minute running time of “Tristezas de un Doble A” allows her to stretch out more than she might on a piece half its length.
The impression left by Soledad is of someone thinking on her feet, open to where the music might take her at any moment, and a sense of real-time creation is present throughout. Alcorn hews closely enough to the basic structures of Piazzolla's compositions that they clearly identify themselves as such (she even replicates the customary flourish with which many of his pieces end), yet she also grazes freely, careful to let her own sensibility work its way into the performances, too. Her approach is, in other words, respectful but not overly reverential; there's soloing—in one sense there's nothing but—but it's soloing done in service to the song. In Alcorn's own words, she enjoys “listening to and playing all music and any music in which I can feel a sense of heart, sincerity, and purpose”—qualities present in ample supply on this homage.