Big Music 2015:

One To Tango: Susan Alcorn brings her pedal steel guitar to Argentinian tango

Susan Alcorn can die now.

Not that she wants to, of course. But the Baltimore-based pedal steel guitarist and improviser’s new album, “Soledad,” fulfills an ambition she’s carried around since 1987, when she first heard the late Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla play his tempestuous tango compositions in concert. Alcorn says the sinuous beauty and weltering passions of his music connected with her “in a way for which I’m not sure I have words.”

“I always thought, some day before I die, I want to record his music,” she says during an interview at a Station North café. “Seriously, that was really in my mind. And then when I finished [‘Soledad’], I thought, OK, whatever happens now, at least I did this.”

Alcorn’s in her early 60s, and has already lived a couple of different lives. For years she played pedal steel in Western swing and country bands across Texas. Then she launched herself as a composer and free improviser, performing and recording solo as well as in group settings with a who’s who of avant-music luminaries.

But her instrument, her approach to it, and the music she makes now are all so unique that one can only hope she’s just getting started.

The story of how a woman who plays an instrument associated with honky-tonks ends up recording a tribute to an Argentinian composer in an apartment in Baltimore begins in Cleveland where Alcorn was born.

Her father loved Dixieland and big-band jazz, and her mother sang on occasion with the mighty Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Their daughter played the viola in a school band before eventually settling on the trumpet. But like millions of other teenagers during the 1960s, she was seduced by the guitar. She says her trumpet teacher urged her to stick with serious highbrow music-making alone, but told her that if she did pick up guitar, she should continue to play both “so you’ll only be half a failure.”

She loved ’60s rock and its forerunner, the blues. FM radio, then an “underground” format, beamed her John Coltrane’s more-challenging later music. Listening to Frank Zappa led her to Edgard Varèse—she recalls ordering an album featuring the composer’s piece “Ameriques” and dancing around her living room to it, alone.

None of her high school friends listened to free jazz or modern composers, she says: “I guess I didn’t think of it as weird until later.”

Hearing Muddy Waters play live in Chicago, where she moved once out on her own, hooked her on slide guitar and the power of “the notes between the notes,” as she puts it. Slide guitar led to the dobro, then Hawaiian guitar, and finally pedal steel—amplified strings built into a wide neck on a stand, fretted slide-style with a bullet-like metal bar, and further bent in pitch with the help of pedals operated by the player’s feet and knees. She loved country music and Western swing, and she started getting pretty good on the instrument (at least for the Midwest). And she was looking to leave Chicago, and a veteran pedal steel guitarist told her that in Texas, “if you can play, you can find as much work as you want.”

Alcorn moved to Houston in 1981, and for a decade she played country standards for dancing crowds across the state. (There’s a whole article to be written just about that.) But she never lost her interest in other forms of music. She had her own jazz trio on the side, though she says that when she tried to get them to play an Ornette Coleman tune, they balked: “They said it was out of tune.”

By the early ’90s, the Texas economy had slumped, and Alcorn’s musical interests were diversifying. “Here’s me,” she says, “listening to Albert Ayler on my way to a gig, and then playing the kickoff to ‘Crazy Arms.’ And they’re like, ‘Susan, something sounds not quite right about that.’”

In 1997, she was invited to take part in a local performance series called 12 Minutes Max. Since she only had 12 minutes onstage, per the name, she didn’t bother rounding up and rehearsing a band. Alcorn was steeped in free jazz, and loved more idiosyncratic improvisers/experimenters such as Pauline Oliveros. “I said, ‘I’m just going to not plan anything and go up there,’” she recalls.

She found those 12 minutes of solo improvising transformative. “There was nothing there between me and the people listening. There was nowhere to hide,” she says. “That sort of set me off, for better or worse.”

Alcorn started building up a new musical career based on free improvisation, experimentation, and creating her own pieces. Her new approach drew from Indian raga and contemporary composition (she’s fond of Morton Feldman), as well as the emotional and creative volatility of free jazz and improv. Her early solo recordings and tours built international buzz about this woman from Texas bringing the silvery purr of pedal steel to the avant-garde.

But in Houston, she was somewhat isolated. Her two daughters were grown, and musically, “I was sort of by myself,” she says. “I didn’t have anyone to play with.”

She had passed through Baltimore several times, and had enjoyed performing at the Red Room and at the High Zero Festival. In 2007, she used her experience teaching English-as-a-second-language to land a job teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools and found a new musical home in Charm City.

“People in Houston who were educated, musically, wanted nothing to do with me,” she says. “But then I come up here, and all of a sudden all of these people who teach at Peabody are saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, we want to play with you.’ What?!?” But while she worked on her own music, she had never forgotten Astor Piazzolla. Over the years, she had grabbed up Piazzolla recording, and worked on learning to play his compositions—not an easy task for someone playing pedal steel.

Piazzolla came up playing standard tangos, but left the style behind to study composition with Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, and later with famed composer and pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Paris. But Boulanger encouraged him to return to his native style, and bolstered by his training in classical counterpoint and a love for American jazz, he did. The “nuevo tango” sound he created combined the complexity of chamber music with the tugging dance rhythms and febrile emotionalism of the tango bars, and a generous dash of the composer’s larger-than-life personality.

“At times his music is really fiery, and then 10 seconds later it’s sweet,” she says. “And then there’s this almost self-pity, and this outpouring of love and tenderness.”

In some ways, playing Piazzolla on the pedal steel felt natural. Piazzolla played the bandoneon, an oversized accordion, its fluid, breathlike lines resemble those of Alcorn’s instrument. But she found it difficult to transpose music written for a quintet of ricocheting virtuosos to a single instrument fretted by a steel bar.

Putting together two groups of jazz musicians while on a residency three years ago in New York—one playing Piazzolla, the other playing country—led her back to serious work performing his music solo. Once she mastered several pieces to her own satisfaction (and penned one Piazzolla-inspired piece of her own), she recorded takes to her computer at home, creating “Soledad.”

The title track opens “Soledad” with the sort of melancholy slow drag that brings to mind the bedroom as much as the dance floor. On ‘Invierno Porteño’ and ‘Adios Nonino,’ the improvised elements of Alcorn’s performances here become more obvious—including a brief interpolation of Vitali’s Chaconne in the former. Her own ‘Suite for Ahl,’ with local bassist and frequent collaborator Michael Formanek joining in, ducks pastiche for swooningly melodic homage. Throughout she captures Piazzolla’s tricky rhythms and his emotional and musical lability. It is the most instantly accessible album of her career.

She seems almost reticent to list the array of other projects she’s been working on, including a forthcoming octet album with prolific jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson and “Crepuscular Dreams,” her own recently debuted composition for the glissando-ripe lineup of two pedal steel guitars and two trombones. And she has a whole slate of ideas for recordings she’d like to make.

It seems clear, though, that she’s going to keep playing and keep exploring, following her idiosyncratic muse wherever it leads. At one point, while discussing her preference for recording at home, she sums it up herself with typical self-deprecation: “I have a sound in mind. I’m not all that great . . . but I know what I’m looking for.”

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