Several years ago, I stumbled upon Susanne Abbuehl's CD April. It was one of those unexpected discoveries that probably only happens while aimlessly browsing at an actual record store (as opposed to iTunes or Napster or whatever the kids are doing these days…)
I was intrigued by the e. e. cummings song titles (including one poem that I ineptly attempted to set to music myself long ago), the dreamily blurry album cover, and the sheer novelty of finding a vocal jazz album on the ECM label.
It turned out to be pretty good stuff — moody, cerebral, literate chamber jazz with a touch of folk and world music, anchored by Ms. Abbuehl's understated, subtle vocals sung in English and colored by a foreign accent that I couldn't quite place. (And of course she did a much better job arranging "maggie and milly and molly and may" than I did.)
Abbuehl has now released another album with a one word title, Compass, and I've learned that she is apparently "Swiss/Dutch," which explains the odd accent. The album cover is still blurry and the label is still ECM, but James Joyce has replaced e. e. cummings in the track listing – and believe it or not, she has somehow managed to turn a chunk of Joyce's impossible to read and/or understand Finnegan's Wake into a tune of sorts. (Sure, but has she figured out The Da Vinci Code?)
Abbuehl is also brave enough to write original lyrics for Sun Ra's "A Call For All Demons" and Chick Corea's "Children's Song No. 1" this time around, and she again throws in a few of her own songs for good measure.
I was initially surprised that "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair" appears on Compass as well, thinking that this singer lacks the hysterical temperament required to match the notoriously wrenching interpretation of this traditional song that I associate with the enigmatic Patty Waters. Abbuehl instead finds inspiration in Luciano Berio's version, offering a restrained, sparse, and elegant rendition of his transparent post-modern arrangement.
Abbuehl's band hasn't changed much — piano, clarinets, and percussion provide the instrumental accompaniment — but somehow the overall sound has become hazier, murkier, and less purposeful than what I heard on April, often drifting with that pretentious and rather aimless wistful melancholy that pervades much of the ECM jazz catalog these days. Even Corea's once jaunty "Children's Song" plods along at an almost funereal tempo, and her idea of "A Call for All Demons" is more depressive than it is demonic.
Still, I think Abbuehl is on to something… Along with Patricia Barber, she is exploring a unique new style of brainy yet accessible jazz/folk singing that may be the perfect soundtrack for long rainy days, musty used bookstores, and lonely campus coffee shops. And if you like any of these things — and hopefully you do — you'll probably like Compass (and April) too.