I love jazz…and I love poetry. Please, just don't mix the two. That used to be my attitude about these things. A wall was needed between them. Why? Well, there have been instances where the combination of a spoken word performance backed by musical accompaniment has tended to lean toward the more embarrassing aspects of Beat poetry. You know, verse and bongos (this
coming from a huge fan of the Beats).
A few summers ago, I bought a copy of William Hooker's Mindfulness. That album was an avant-collision of drummer Hooker, DJ Olive and the late reed player Glen Spearman. Attracted to the Buddhist song titles and Hooker's stellar reputation at the kit, this figured to be a knockout—and it was…until the spoken word segment with repeated use of "Sun Ra….Sun Ra!" I don't know. In no way did this descend to the cartoonish level of Beatniks and Bongos. It's just that maybe it didn't fit in to that day's early morning listen session.
Midway through that last paragraph, it occurred to me that this might be an awful lot of baggage to be piling on top of singer Susanne Abbuehl. My intent wasn't to present a comparison of good vs. bad in the area of jazz-meets-words. No, it was more to bring up yet another example of the mysterious phenomenon of musical resonance.
Abbuehl's Compass resonates with my ears on many levels. The sparse, almost chamber-jazz quality of the ensemble, the delicate interplay between words and music, the bass clarinet (Sorry, I have a thing for that instrument)!
I usually do my best to sidestep lyrics but that would be a major crime here. Abbuehl has gone to great lengths to bring a variety of themes, composers and writers to the table from her own words to those of James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and even a poet from the Ming dynasty.
In fact let's take those words, from Feng-Meng Yung, as a fine example of what Abbuehl can do when inspired by a lyrical idea. Presented as a duet between voice and pianist Wolfert Brederode, "Don't Set Sail" becomes a bluesy and sultry rumination: "Don't set sail/the wind is rising/and the weather none too good/far better come back to my house/If there is anything you want just tell me/if you're cold, my body is warm…"
Compass begins with the Abbuehl-penned "Bathyal." It starts out with a single bass clarinet line, soon followed by piano and the leader's engrossing voice. When in her lower register, I'm reminded of Patricia Barber. Elsewhere, the Swiss-Dutch elements of her voice are more prominent. I have to admit to being more than a little entranced.
And entranced I was by Abbuehl's voice accompanied by a pair of clarinets (with guest Michel Portal on second) on my first listen to "Black Is The Color…" The vocal-like qualities of the woodwinds perfectly accent the leader's instrument. This same arrangement is used on the traditional French "Lo Fiolairé" (this time with bass clarinet). It is wonderful to hear
the human voice being framed in such a way.
While Abbuehl sings most of the material, the drop into spoken word is very effective. "Sea, Sea!" takes some Joyce prose from Finnegan's Wake and turns it into a jazz dreamscape. Spoken and sung passages are intertwined. Great stuff!
What makes Compass so interesting is the playful juxtaposition of established words/music with new lyrics and/or arrangements. Case(s) in point—Sun Ra's "A Call For All Demons" set to Abbuehl's lyrics and wrapped in a musical setting that leans toward a jazzified take on Tom Waits' "What's He Building?" Then there's Chick Corea's "Children's Song #1." That very non-linear melody line that must have challenged Abbuehl the lyricist.
Abbuehl's other forays into the land of famous poets includes William Carlos Williams' "Primrose" and a trio of Joyce selections from a collection of verse entitled, appropriately, "Chamber Music." Very striking on the latter tunes ("The twilight turns from amethyst", Bright cap and streamers", "In the dark pine-wood") to hear words from Joyce that are so direct.
Much credit must be given to Abbuehl's band (Brederode/piano, Christof May/clarinet/bass clarinet, Lucas Niggli/drums/percussion). When an ensemble of musicians work perfectly together, it can seem as though they're completing each other's musical thoughts. That much sensitivity and more is evident throughout Compass.
Susanne Abbuehl's Compass has once again reminded me that strict "rules" about what works (or not) in music need to be revised often. Not only have I been introduced to a fascinating new (to me) artist, I've been put to task to perhaps go back and revisit past "failures."
I tell you, the musical world never stops expanding.