Susan Alcorn Credit: Courtesy the Artist

No one else plays the pedal steel guitar like Susan Alcorn. She combines a command of the instrument’s orchestral range with an improvisational fluency that lets her take the instrument far beyond its usual idiomatic settings. She began playing professionally in Chicago country bars in the mid-1970s, then went on to hone her chops in Texas western-swing and country bands. But in 1990 she tapped into another Lone Star sound—the “deep listening” philosophy of Houston-born composer Pauline Oliveros—and she’s been courting unpredictability ever since. Since the late 90s, Alcorn has worked mainly in jazz and freely improvised settings, though in 2015 she recorded an album of Astor Piazzolla’s tangos. She’s added lush harmonies to the rigorously arranged music of the Mary Halvorson Octet, and on 2019’s Invitation to a Dream she spontaneously generated intricate structures with horn players Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark. One thing Alcorn hasn’t done is put together a band to play her compositions, but that changes with her new album, Pedernal. The crack group on the record—guitarist Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, violinist Michael Feldman, and drummer Ryan Sawyer—ably negotiates her music’s sudden shifts in style, mood and structure. “R.U.R.” starts out with a zigzagging theme worthy of Anthony Braxton, then slingshots into a passage of fleet, swinging bebop. The title piece moves abruptly between a stately melody and passages of free-falling chaos. And “Northeast Rising Sun” transforms a phrase Alcorn learned from qawwali singing into a loping, country-tinged celebration.   v