In the midst of a saturated field of female singers, Susanne Abbuehl stands out like a beacon. She does not choose the path of least resistance, always making sure she's pictured with her mouth open warbling her way through a cross-section of the tried-and-trusted. Instead she employs the timbre of her voice as an end in itself, never overstating her case. Such qualities, when tied with the fact that she goes in a whole lot more for musical settings of poems by the likes of William Carlos Williams than standards, makes for a listening experience that is nothing if not singular.
This, of course, begs the question of why there aren't more vocal artists at this calibre and level of individuality, especially when she approaches "Don't Set Sail" via the unlikeliest means to evoke the standard songbook while simultaneously maintaining her distance from it.
Having said this, Abbuehl is aided in achieving the singularity of her endeavours in no small part by the sparseness of her accompaniment. A trio of clarinet, piano/harmonium and percussion is never going to create a dense sound, and in a sense the music might almost have been fashioned for the archetypal "ECM sound." Repeated listening, however, reveals depths of individual musical expression that transcend such considerations. On the Abbuehl original "Bathyal," pianist Wolfert Brederode shows how empathetic he can be with her approach, and the innate grace of his work has the effect of leavening a melancholy feeling that might be too much even for the most devout melancholic.
Abbuehl shows incredible astuteness in setting text from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to her own music on "Sea, Sea!" Not only has a lot of Joyce's work always had an intrinsic lyricism, but the example also serves to highlight the degree to which Abbuehl's natural musical home lies as much in the amorphous area of the art song as it does with jazz as such.
No matter. Compass is the work of a vocalist pursuing her own muse, as opposed to someone who spends a few years "singing jazz" before she moves off into the far more remunerative pursuit of modelling, which only goes to show that there remains a whole world between art and commerce.
Personnel: Susanne Abbuehl: vocals; Wolfert Brederode: piano, harmonium; Christof May: clarinet; Lucas
Niggli: percussion; Michel Portal: clarinet (2,4).