Susanne Abbuehl: The Gift (ECM 2322)

The Gift

Susanne Abbuehl
The Gift

Susanne Abbuehl voice
Matthieu Michel flugelhorn
Wolfert Brederode piano, Indian harmonium
Olavi Louhivuori drums, percussion
Recorded July 30-August 1, 2012, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Assistant engineers: Nicolas Baillard and Romain Castéra
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If April and Compass, the two previous ECM traversals from Swiss-Dutch singer Susanne Abbuehl, charted a journey, then The Gift is its destination. Important to understanding the experience of listening to any Abbuehl album, particularly this one, is welcoming her idiosyncratic approach to poetry. These songs overflow with words from Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale, Emily Brontë, and Wallace Stevens. Rather than simply add music to them as would a jeweler bend miniscule claws around a diamond, she lets the verses walk around inside her before their spirits leave her lips.

Susanne Abbuehl

This time she incorporates her unique delivery into an even more attuned matrix. Pianist Wolfert Brederode and drummer Olavi Louhivuori sprout rhythmic branches that are every bit as melodic as her roots. But the flugelhorn of Matthieu Michel is what really sets this session apart from its predecessors. It’s a defining presence on the album where the clarinets of Christof May were before. Its rounded tone is a voice unto itself, swooning through the corridors of Abbuehl’s sole lyric contribution in “Soon (Five Years Ago).” This song, appropriately enough about the displacement of earthly time, may appear late in the program, but it’s also its defining statement of it.

Fans of Norma Winstone will surely rejoice at the freedom of Abbuehl’s approach, exemplified to peak effect in “The Cloud,” which opens in reverie. Activated by a kalimba’s metallic fingertips, her voice carries word and song along the trumpet’s cirrus drift. It is a restless feeling we counter here, one that remains in all that follows, so that even the simple admission of Dickinson’s “This And My Heart” (and its variation, which ends the album) harbors a shadow or two. We might feel this also in the arrangement, which engages voice and flugelhorn in marriages, divorces, and flirtatious commentaries. All the while, a processional feeling soaks through. Where the first song was emblematic for its atmosphere, so is this for an attention to detail by means of which Abbuehl and her band embody a conception of self that, so like a book, opens and flutters with the dynamism of language. From the mountains to the catacombs, it’s all here.

In light of such intensities, “If Bees Are Few” makes for an airy interlude, suspended as if above prairies misty with dandelion fluff. It closes its eyes and enters the dream that is “My River Runs To You.” Across this canvas of love, magical by way of lyric and music alike, the ocean paints itself into a network of inlets, each a harbor waiting for that one boat to make permanent docking. The effect is such that “Ashore At Last” breathes like a mission statement to the fanfare of its free and melodious flugelhorn. “Forbidden Fruit,” then, seems to close the circle of a miniature trilogy of sorts, swaying with all the gentle relief of a silhouetted tree against the night.

Indeed, for all its leaping heartbeats, much of The Gift is cradled in nocturnal contours and through them are revealed Abbuehl’s purest tones. In “By Day, By Night,” her voice is flute-like and devoid of vibrato, its waters as crystalline as those of time are muddied. Even in those passages in which she doesn’t sing, her spirit animates every reflection. In this sense, Stevens echoes farthest: “In my room, the world is beyond my understanding.” Holding to this philosophy, the album’s brightest moments are revealed where one might nominally least expect them: in “Shadows On Shadows.” Brontë’s imagery unfolds a scintillating act of transparency. It is the album’s lighthouse, but might remain unlit were it not for the embers of Abbuehl’s wonderful musicians. “Fall, Leaves, Fall” is the epitome of their sensitive approach. This song of death, haunted by an Indian harmonium and drummed whispers, is a prayer of sisterly forces. “Sepal” emerges from a landscape’s worth of flora and uncommon graces as a single petal falling, a light footstep without a trace except in the utterances of she who observes and vocalizes them into memory, as memory.

Understated yet full as a rose in bloom, this is the emotional clarity of which Abbuehl’s craft is possessed apart. In her purview, the moon disappears not when it is new, but when it hides beyond that most ephemeral of horizons: the human heart. It is a shadow of its own truth, a truth given understanding by Teasdale after all:

 I throw my mantle over the moon
And I blind the sun on his throne at noon,
Nothing can tame me, nothing can bind,
I am a child of the heartless wind—
But oh the pines on the mountain’s crest
Whispering always, “Rest, rest.”

(To hear samples of The Gift, click here.)

Susanne Abbuehl: Compass (ECM 1906)


Susanne Abbuehl

Susanne Abbuehl voice
Wolfert Brederode piano
Christof May clarinet, bass clarinet
Lucas Niggli drums, percussion
Michel Portal clarinet (on two tracks)
Recorded January 2003 and October 2004 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Leave dreams to the dreamers
That will not after,
That song and laughter
Do nothing move.
–James Joyce

Compass is more than the title of Susanne Abbuehl’s sophomore ECM album. It is also a physical manifestation of the singer’s artistry. The compass guides with a needle fluid and true, trembling at the slightest change in direction to indicate north. Aiding Abbuehl in this navigation is pianist Wolfert Brederode, clarinetist Christof May, and drummer Lucas Niggli over a span of 12 songs. The number implies a compass of a different register—the clock—and grander others—the solar system, and by extension the Milky Way (hence, perhaps, the cover of her label debut, April)—which dictate the sweep of the clock’s hands with such precision that mortal instruments can only sample a simulacrum of their taste.

That said, Abbuehl’s originality in a planetary system of so-called “jazz vocalists” spins like an instrument celestial, an undiscovered body whose reflection shines through the introductory telescope of “Bathyal.” The words and music are her own, emerging from a primal bass clarinet, dark as the sun is bright, as a vessel down the piano’s river run. The feeling of water, overwhelming enough to drown out the noise of the world, carries also a promise of depth in nature, its tickling spray a mist of love. “Do not run just yet / Do not hide,” she implores: less a challenge to the listener than it is to her own emotions, without which the album’s remainder would fade along with the salmon in their streams.

Two selections—“Black Is The Color…” and “Lo Fiolairé”—from Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs are subjected to unique investigation. The words are carried along by a rather different current, this of charcoal in the form of two clarinets (Michel Portal provides the second reed). In her bare renditions, Abbuehl underscores the power of melodies to overcome the means of their expression. Tied in a braid of lyrical hair, their elements grow along an ebony trail of origins in strands of night and shadow. The Berio inclusion hints at a less obvious connection to the poetry of James Joyce, whose words the Italian composer set to music in 1953, as does Abbuehl for the new millennium. Here she draws inspiration from the same collection, 1907’s Chamber Music. These revivals come in the form of “The Twilight Turns From Amethyst,” “Bright Cap And Streamers,” and “In The Dark Pine-Wood.” In them lies another version of the album’s eponym: as color wheel in the painter’s hand (yellow, as Abbuehl sings later in William Carlos Williams’s “Primrose,” is not a color, but is among other things a shadow). Their circadian approach to worldly being bleeds through the clarinet’s fleshy overlap, a call for unity through real-time calculations of difference. Brederode’s keyboard—the ever-present messenger, the mournful traveler who finds beauty in rest—carves a hovel in every tree along the way, until only a shell of the journey remains. Joyce breathes also through “Sea, Sea!” This song from Finnegan’s Wake outlines a bridge, a meeting of souls across unfathomable expanse, and weaves a basket of alliterations against Niggli’s earthen percussion.

Chinese poet Feng Menglong of the late Ming dynasty rises from the deep in “Don’t Set Sail,” a love poem that is about as hopeful as the waves it fears—although with Brederode behind her, Abbuehl needs no oars. This song pairs hauntingly with the last track, which in having brought us over water now keeps us from it, under threat of storm and chop. A potent metaphor for the solitary heart. Sun Ra’s “A Call For All Demons” unearths deeper loneliness, washed in mercury, while “Children’s Song No. 1,” comes from Chick Corea’s landmark collection of piano miniatures, turns the Tarot card over to reveal a bluebird’s Empress flight.

Although “Where Flamingos Fly” is a jazz standard (the album’s only), it feels the least familiar in the present company. Its distance is emphasized by the soulful clarinet, of which the rasp of breath and wood runs its fingers along the edge of every utterance. Like the album as a whole, it finds in its source a new seed to sprout. In light of this, to call Abbuehl’s arrangements understated would itself be an understatement. Sparse though they are, their awareness of negative space is as thick as the pitch that holds the stars in place.

Susanne Abbuehl: April (ECM 1766)


Susanne Abbuehl

Susanne Abbuehl voice
Wolfert Brederode piano, harmonium, melodica
Christof May clarinet, bass clarinet
Samuel Rohrer drums, percussion
Recorded November 2000 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

All night the sound had
come back again,
and again falls
This quiet, persistent rain.
–Robert Creeley (1926-2005)

The ECM debut of Susanne Abbuehl is a verdant introductory résumé for which the Swiss singer-composer presents settings of poems by e. e. cummings and sets her own to the music of Carla Bley. Abbuehl comes from a long line of idiosyncratic chanteuses to have passed through ECM’s hallowed halls—including Sidsel Endresen, Norma Winstone, and Annette Peacock—and has left behind a veritable wing of artwork to admire at length. April carves out perhaps the most distinct of these exhibitions, and with “yes is a pleasant country” introduces us not only to her nesting textu(r)al approach, but also to the poetry of her synergistic band. Pianist Wolfert Brederode (who has since gone on to record leader dates for ECM), drummer Samuel Rohrer (also of Brederode’s quartet), and clarinetist Christof May together grow, needle by needle, the Christmas tree from which Abbuehl hangs her vocal ornaments. The simpatico between singer and sung is further palpable in her braiding with melodica and clarinet in “all i need,” for which its love guides her indigo words far into the heavens. “skies may be blue” and “yes” form a bonded pair. One is a meditation on spring, the other a field of rolling hills painted in wordcraft. Brederode’s composing and playing are exquisite in “maggie and milly and molly and may,” a litany of fleeting memories in which his pianism overshadows with a vocal quality all its own. The final cummings tribute comes in “since feeling is first.” This Abbuehl sings solo, a tribute to the poet’s later disavowals of punctuation.

Bley’s classic “Ida Lupino” gets a lyrical makeover, bringing out just one of countless stories hidden in its pathways: astute, a touch dark, and emotionally forthcoming. Brederode is something of a sage here, navigating the whimsical images therein: a tiger in the snow, a waning eye, a folding of the self into another’s embrace. “Closer” and “A.I.R. (All India Radio)” pitch more cargo onto the S.S. Bley, set adrift on moonlit waters. Beyond Abbuehl’s “together-colored moment,” precious jewels shine in anticipation. The air is as wistful as one’s naming of it, yet promises eternity in the bass clarinet’s deep pocket. The latter tune processes by virtue of Rohrer’s understated timekeeping. Among the more seamless weddings of voice and music the album has to offer, one can easily get lost in its wordless circumscriptions. (It also foreshadows the album’s closer.) Bley gets one last nod in “Seven,” for which Abbuehl places spoken verse—in her words: petal by petal, yet deeper than all roses—upon the heart’s altar.

Yet there is perhaps nothing so beguiling here than her re-imagining of “’Round Midnight.” Accompanied only by Brederode on harmonium, the tune creeps out from the darkness and shivers the very marrow. “Mane na” concludes the session by paying homage to Abbuehl’s Hindustani vocal training with a raga compressed to the scope of a teardrop.

Although barely acknowledged above, Rohrer’s delicate infusions haunt the landscape throughout, reaching, as Abbuehl recites, “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond…” In those rhythms is a heart made of pages, thirsty for the next scratch of pen.

An auspicious label debut.

Alternate April
Alternate cover