Susan Alcorn – Canto (Relative Pitch, 2023)

One can scarcely think of another performer, composer or conceptualist that is as consistently diverse, expansive and experienced as pedal steel guitarist, Susan Alcorn. Her latest recording, as well as her fifth feature for Relative Pitch, is entitled Canto and evinces this brilliant quality of her work perhaps more than any of her albums to date.

While Alcorn’s resume boasts of solo recordings, numerous collaborations with world-renowned creative minds Mary Halvorson, Pauline Oliveros and Evan Parker, there have been far too few documents of her written compositions and chamber ensembles. Canto remedies this paucity with some of the most ambitious ensemble writing of the past several years.

By way of Texas swing, free solo and group improvisation settings, as well as more traditional genres like country-western and folk, Alcorn is uniquely equipped to conceive of and execute this fascinating project. In 2003, Alcorn travelled to Chile to immerse herself in the language and culture there. In doing so, she was made aware of the tragic political history and oppression of the country during the brutal regime of Pinochet in the 1970s when Nueva Cancion musicians were murdered and various instruments of that movement were banned. The influence of those histories and times runs deeply throughout the entirety of Canto. She returned in 2022 to record Canto in Maria Pinto, Chile.

Alcorn, with the help of veteran improvisor Luis Alvarez, assembled a diverse ensemble of prominent Chilean folklorists and free improvisers. This included bassist and fellow experimental bassist Amanda Irarrazabal as well as local practitioners of the Nueva Cancion tradition in brothers Claudio Araya on drums and cuatro and Francisco Araya on charango and queen. Rounding out the ensemble is violinist Dana Villanueva.

Alcorn penned two original pieces for the recording, opening the set with the moody “Suite Para Todos”. It’s a wild journey of a composition that begins with a pensive, Weill-esque tango melody before deviating periodically into a prickly modernist harmonic texture before evolving once again into an emphatic protest march and then into more experimental openness before finally returning to the original statement. Things expand on that approach dramatically with the three part suite, “Cantos”. The clever arranging and balanced pace give a rich impression of the impact this time had on Alcorn’s writing. Various instrumental pairings and settings of pedal steel with this novel group of instruments seem so seamlessly integrated and complementary during moments of this music that I wonder if Canto will lead to future albums and ensembles of similar makeup.

Two older pieces conclude the album: an early Alcorn original “Mercedes Sosa” and “El Derecho de Vivir,” a revived song from one of the fallen heroes of the Nueva cancion movement, Victor Jara. All things considered, Canto made for one of my favorite releases of 2023. It’s a deeply personal, considerate statement from one of the most consistently engaging voices operating in the greater field of artists today. Evocative, diverse, and impactful, I can’t recommend exploring this collection enough.

Max KutnerSusan Alcorn – Canto (Relative Pitch, 2023)