"I've been working on this album in one way or another," Susan Alcorn told the overflow crowd for her CD release party at Normal's Wednesday night, "ever since I saw Astor Piazzolla in Houston in 1987."
The great, late Argentine tango master had that effect on people. Much as Duke Ellington did with jazz, Piazzolla took a barroom music and gave it an art-music depth without ever sacrificing its essential vibrancy. He played his music on the bandoneon, a kind of button accordion. But on her new album, "Soledad," Alcorn has transplanted Piazzolla's compositions to the pedal steel guitar.
In the process, she has completely reimagined not only Piazzolla's catalog but also her chosen instrument. Sitting behind her sunburst-color instrument Wednesday, she used the silver cylinder in her left hand as both a percussion instrument and a way to change pitch. She picked out both chordal arpeggios and pinpoint melody lines with her right fingers and a bass line with her thumb. This gave her a fullness of harmony that few steel players ever achieve. It was as if she were playing the pedal steel like a piano.
She performed all five tunes from "Soledad," four of them as unaccompanied solos and 'Suite for Ahl' with jazz bassist Michael Formanek. On the latter tune, passages of elegant tango melody alternated with ferocious tangents into noisy improvisation. On 'Invierno Porteno' ('Winter in a Port City'), she played the lovely tune with the hushed chimes of snow falling on a church steeple. She gave the ending section the yearning ache of a country ballad, the kind she used to play in Houston's honky-tonk bars.
She told the story of visiting Buenos Aires a decade ago right after her father had died and encountering a bandoneon player on the street who invited her to put her ear up to the bellows of his instrument as he played Piazzolla's 'Adios Nonino' ('Goodbye, Grandfather'). Alcorn recaptured that moment by reprising the song in long notes that swelled with affection and then faded out in sadness.
Alcorn ended the show with a spontaneous improvisation with Formanek and tenor saxophonist Derrick Michaels. Michaels had opened the show with a short set of solo saxophone pieces. Whether improvising freely or reinterpreting Thelonious Monk's 'Pannonica,' Michaels was able to create memorable phrases and then vary them in clever ways.