Susanne Abbuehl: Compass (2006)
Compass is vocalist Susanne Abbuehl's second recording for ECM, after 2001's April. Five years is a long time between albums, but the wait was well worth it. Her band has not changed, except that Lucas Niggli has replaced Samuel Rohrer on drums and percussion, and Michel Portal has been added as a second clarinet on two tracks.
The clarinet, particularly in its lower range, can have a vocal quality, and Christof May's lines go beyond mere accompaniment to almost become a second voice winding around Abbuehl's. Her voice is very pure and crystalline, with a bit of airiness that creates an ethereal atmosphere, and yet she has an intensity and presence that demands attention.
The overall effect of listening to the instrumentation and arrangements, when combined with Abbuehl's vocals, is like eating an intensely rich dessert that threatens to overwhelm the senses. Yet, the disc also gains intensity from its sparseness, partly achieved through static harmony and rhythmic freedom. The record has a floating feeling; time seems to stop as the tracks, none of which break six minutes, build upon each other, carrying the listener along upon gentle waves.
Abbuehl's interests extend beyond music into poetry and literature. The words for which she has created music come from such disparate sources as Chinese poetry, a poem by William Carlos Williams, and the works of James Joyce, including Finnegan's Wake, while her own lyrics accompany the music of Chick Corea and Sun Ra.
While Abbuehl is recorded up-close and her delivery is very precise, the meaning of the words, from the point of view of a song, seems quite secondary. Rather, she caresses the sound of each syllable, carefully placing each one within a web of clarinet, piano and percussion. Here is where the magic lies and where one can fully appreciate Abbuehl's talents, with careful listening.
The unique instrumentation, as well as the way Wolfert Brederode plays accompaniment on piano and harmonium, might remind listeners of Anouar Brahem's recent Le Voyage de Sahar (ECM, 2006) in the way it mines a particular, very personal esthetic, showing attention to detail and polishing each piece to a mirror finish.
Compass is music which deserves total immersion, and the hour you spend doing that can offer deep rewards. From the opening sounds of "Bathyal" (words and music by Abbuehl) to "Where Flamingos Fly" (words and music by Courtlander/Benson/Thea), the sing-speak of "Sea, Sea!" (words from Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake"), and on to "A Call For All Demons" (music by Sun Ra, words by Abbuehl), this record is entrancing and hypnotizing, as all the best art should be.
Track Listing: Bathyal; Black is the Color; Where Flamingos Fly; Lo Fiolaire; Sea, Sea!; Don't Set Sail; The twilight turns from amethyst; Primrose; Bright cap and streamers; A Call For All Demons; Children's Song #1; In the dark pine-wood.
Personnel: Susanne Abbuehl: voice; Wolfert Brederode: piano; Christof May: clarinet, bass clarinet; Lucas Niggli: drums, percussion; Michel Portal: clarinet (2,4).