Susan Alcorn first learned her way around the pedal steel guitar by playing the usual stuff — country songs where the pedal steel’s glissando was meant to evoke the viscosity of teardrops. Now, residing in Baltimore decades later, Alcorn sits down at her instrument with clearer eyes and wider ears. During a solo performance, she might drift from an Olivier Messiaen melody, to an Ornette Coleman phrase, into an Astor Piazzolla tango, then off to a cosmos of her own improvisation.
That untethered approach must be an extension of the pedal steel’s melodic fluidity, right? “I don’t know if it has to do with mechanics of the instrument,” Alcorn says. “It probably has to do with the mechanics of my brain.”
And one thing that Alcorn firmly believes is that the pedal steel — much like that complicated blob of pink stuff between our ears — is far more adaptable than most people are willing to acknowledge. To prove it, she has collaborated with some of the most forward-thinking composers and improvisers in jazz, including guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, saxophonist Evan Parker and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier.
Alcorn refuses to evaporate into the wallpaper whenever she’s onstage with these heavies, but her lone performances convey something even more substantial. “When you’re playing along with another person, you’re occupying a certain percentage of space,” she says. “When I play solo, I feel like I have to be the whole.”
That’s a bold thought from a player whose instrument is still largely seen as a machine for honky-tonk filigree. Playing alone isn’t an expression of solitude or quarantine, but of totality.
Show: Alcorn is opening for Tiger Trio (Myra Melford, Nicole Mitchell and Joëlle Léandre) on Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at NYU Washington’s Abramson Family Auditorium, 1307 L St. NW. capitalbop.com. $15, $10 for students.