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Susanne Abbuehl: Compass

John Kelman By

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Anyone fortunate enough to have heard Susanne Abbuehl's out-of-print first record, I Am Rose (Evoke, 1997), knows that while the singer's musical direction was already developing, it was not until her 2001 ECM debut, April, that it became fully realized. Compass is a logical evolution, but it manages a few surprises, finding Abbuehl and her unorthodox trio becoming even more integrated, intuitive and introspective.

Abbuehl continues to defy convention. In contrast to jazz singers who search for new ways to portray an overworked Great American Songbook, she has chosen a different path. Alongside her own writings are adaptations of poetry by writers like James Joyce and William Carlos Williams, set to music from artists as diverse as Chick Corea and Sun Ra. All too many singers approach their material with overbearing melisma; Abbuehl's delivery remains so understated that it takes time to fully appreciate the finer nuances that are the trademark of her deeply interpretive approach.

Additionally, Abbuehl shapes her music with a trio that may be unusual in its makeup but, with its clear allegiance to space as an equal component, creates a compelling orchestration for her pure and nearly vibrato-less voice. Newcomer Lucas Niggli's textural approach to percussion—with the rare exception of songs like "Sea, Sea!," there's rarely a pulse to be found—meshes perfectly with longtime musical collaborators Wolfert Brederode (piano) and Christof May (clarinets).

Though it's hard to believe such a thing would be possible, Compass is even more rarefied than April. Abbuehl's take on Sun Ra's "A Call for All Demons" is an abstruse mix of staccato low notes on piano, gentle but clangy percussion, and a bass clarinet that seems to shadow her every move—a far cry from Ra's more extroverted approach on Sun Song (Delmark, 1956).

On the traditional "Black is the Color" and "Lo Fiolairé"—both based on Luciano Berio's "Folk Songs"—Abbuehl is accompanied solely by May and guest clarinetist Michel Portal. The fact that two clarinets can blend together to create such a warm foundation for Abbuehl's delicate and vulnerable delivery is just as remarkable as the blurred line they draw between form and freedom.

While improvisation is a clear aspect of the music, Brederode, May and Niggli mesh so seamlessly that the melancholy pedal tone of the ever-so-slightly bluesy "Where Flamingos Fly" feels both spontaneous and clearly conceptualized at the same time. May's tone is soft and often remains in a lower register that perfectly complements Abbuehl's range, while Brederode's sparse approach often suggests more than it explicitly states.

But at the end of the day, it's Abbuehl's ability to express the beauty or bittersweet of a lyric with the slightest turn of phrase that makes Compass so rewarding. It takes a good singer to get to the core of a song; it takes a great one to do it so in a way that puts the song first and ego second. Dark, mysterious and sensual in the most insidious of ways, the appeal of Compass is its breadth of emotion, beautifully delivered without a trace of excess.

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Track Listing: Bathyal; Black Is The Colour; 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: vocals; Wolfert Brederode: piano, harmonium; Christof May: clarinet; Lucas Niggli: percussion; Michel Portal: clarinet (2,4).

Title: Compass | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: ECM Records


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