Album Title: Compass
Performers: Susanne Abbuehl
Label & #: ECM 1906
Play Time:
Recorded: 2003/2004

A reader familiar with my musical tastes recommended Susanne Abbuehl's April on the ECM label. Discovering it during a recent raid on a Lausanne retailer, I also chanced upon her later Compass. Further incentive was seeing her accompanying trio list Christof May on clarinet and bass clarinet, with Michel Portal guesting on two tracks with a second clarinet. Wolfert Brederode on piano and Lucas Niggli on drums and percussion round out the backing lineup.

From that you would think Jazz quartet, with guitar or bass substituted by clarinet but female vocals headlining as usual. Compass, Abbuehl's second album, does indeed traverse such terrain (Chick Corea, Sun Ra) but gives equal coverage to folksy song from Luciano Berio's collection while lyrics include quotes from James Joyce (Finnegans Wake, Chamber Music), William Carlos Willams (Sour Grapes) and Feng Meng-Lung from China's Ming dynasty. It's more appropriate really to think of Compass as introspective modern chamber music, with the singer foremost understated story teller -- occasionally indeed talk-singing -- not vivacious scat diva or smooching scorcher. In fact, the only Jazz standard is the slow-mo take on Harold Courlander's "Where Flamingos Fly". To shoehorn Abbuehl's style into the straightahead Jazz drawer would miss. Make straightahead circuitous and you're closer. Call her brainy, terse and moody rather than voluptuous, fiery or outgoing and you're home.

Unlike completely intellectualized Jazz that's experimental to the extreme and forgets the heart, Abbuehl's style avoids the fully abstract and aloof outer fringes. She remains quite approachable yet inherently sparse, spectatorish and non-spectacular. The emphasis is on the setting of space and atmosphere. Virtuoso indulgences are frowned upon. Niggli's appropriately minimalist percussion too works primarily to sustain mood rather than engage in vigorous time keeping or fire up syncopated swing. The focus is down-tempo and on clever lyrics, some penned by the singer. Except for one Corea and Ra number each, the balladic tunes are all Abbuehl's own. As you expect from Manfred Eicher productions, sonics are excellent and May's reedy timbres often mimic the singer's quite closely to enhance their dialogue. Compass points at quirkiness and layered meanings and opens up with repeat listens.