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Susanne Abbuehl: Susanne Abbuehl: The Gift

John Kelman By

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There was a time when artists were expected to release a record every year—sometimes a very good thing, as there was so much development going on that there was plenty to document; other times a less-than-ideal situation, as some artists simply didn't have that much music in them, so releasing albums too frequently often worked against—rather than for—them. Swiss-born/Netherlands-resident singer Susanne Abbuehl may, with The Gift, only have four albums to her name since her 1997 debut, the long out-of-print I Am Rose (Suisa), but since joining the ECM roster in 2001 with the Edison Award-winning April (2001), she has established herself as a singer of rare instincts and conceptual distinction.

The Gift comes seven years after Compass (ECM, 2006), so clearly Abbuehl is a singer who takes whatever time she needs to make each recording both special, and an evolutionary step along the unique trajectory she's been following since I Am Rose. The Gift does, however, represent a significant change for Abbuehl, whose past approach has been to split her repertoire between sourced poetry from, in addition to her own words, writers including e.e. cummings, James Joyce and William Carlos Williams, set to music from artists who, in addition to her own writing, ranged from pianists Carla Bley, Chick Corea and Sun Ra, to saxophonist Ornette Coleman, all of The Gift's sixteen songs feature Abbuehl's music, with words from two famous 19th century Emilys—Dickinson and Brontë—as well as two 20th century poets, Sara Teasdale and Wallace Stevens.

That's not the only significant change with The Gift. While pianist Wolfert Brederode—himself an ECM artist with two marvelous recordings to his name, 2008's Currentsand 2011's Post Scriptum—has remained a constant in Abbuehl's groups since I Am Rose, the rest of her quartet has been completely revamped. Christof May's clarinet—and, most importantly to Abbuehl's previous ECM recordings, bass clarinet—has been replaced by flugelhornist Matthieu Michel, here making his first ECM appearance, and, for the fourth time, Abbuehl changes the percussion seat, this time recruiting Olavi Louhivuori , an increasingly busy Finnish drummer who, in addition to participating in trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's Dark Eyes (ECM, 2009) quintet, continues to work in bassist Mats Eilertsen's SkyDive (Hubro, 2012) quintet and Alexi Tomarila's trio, heard most recently on the Finnish pianist's excellent Seven Hills (Edition, 2013).

With Brederode also playing harmonium (as he has on past recordings), and Michel layering spare lines over and under Louhivuori's tuned percussion on the opening "The Cloud," the qualities that have distinguished Abbuhel since her ECM debut are immediately evident. In a time of melismatic singers, Abbuehl's attention to the purity of every note, the articulation of every vowel and the absolute precision of every consonant—even as her notes are fading to black, it's possible to hear the finest details—make her a singer who impresses, not through superfluous virtuosity, but by the exact opposite: for Abbuehl, every single note counts, and every single note bears the same relevance.

There are folkloric elements to Abbuehl's writing that emerge clearly on pieces like the gentle "This And My Heart"—where a flugelhorn solo breaks up the singer's reiteration of Dickinson's brief, four-line, two-stanza poem—but even as the music adopts clear song form, Abbuehl's lyric sources avoid predictable patterns. "If Bees Are Few" is a dark, rubato tone poem miniature, Dickinson's lyrics as ethereal and gossamer-light as Abbuehl's delivery and her quartet's interpretation, while the lengthier "My River Runs to You"—featuring Brederode's beautiful a cappella intro—slowly builds its dramaturgy from a perfect combination of Mathieu's breathy embouchure, Louhivuori's soft colors, Brederode's gentle majesty and Abbuehl's ability to imply so much with the subtlest of gestures.

Beyond her Indian studies, Abbuehl was a student of singer Jeanne Lee and there's a certain quality to her voice that also recalls ECM label mate Norma Winstone, whose own approach to chamber-infused vocal music in recent years culminated in 2010's sublime Stories to Tell. Abbuehl has, however, long left behind any obvious touchstones. A singer whose greatest strength is her willingness to be absolutely vulnerable and whose most impressive quality is her ability to imbue great meaning to every word—every note—with the power of understatement and control rather than manifest and dissolute virtuosity, The Gift may have been a long time coming but, as has been the case with every Abbuehl recording, it's been well worth the wait.

Track Listing: The Cloud; This And My Heart; If Bees Are Few; My River Runs To You; Ashore At Last; Forbidden Fruit; By Day, By Night; A Slash Of Blue; Wild Nights; In My Room; Bind Me; Soon (Five Years Ago); Fall, Leaves, Fall; Sepal; Shadows On Shadows; This And My Heart, var.

Personnel: Susanne Abbuehl: voice; Matthieu Michel: flugelhorn; Wolfert Brederode: piano, Indian harmonium; Olavi Louhivuori: drums; percussion.

Title: Susanne Abbuehl: The Gift | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: ECM Records


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