So spare, so quiet, so nearly still, listening to jazz vocalist Susanne Abbuehl’s Compass is like trying to catch the mist between the cups of your palms. Perhaps you’ve heard her first album, 2001’s April, and you think you already know what I’m talking about. This new record, however, makes her earlier minimalism seem extravagant, Rococo, a gluttonous indulgence. Here, the tracks are comprised mostly of Wolfert Brederode’s restrained piano phrasings and Abbuehl’s soft vocals. Clarinetists Christof May and Michel Portal dapple the songs with brief melodic statements, sometimes by way of an introduction. And percussionist Lucas Niggli is the least obtrusive group member of all, rarely adding more than a lightly accented tap, tap, tap, or a feathery brushstroke on a cymbal.
Compass is pretty, but it is also largely unsatisfying. With Susanne Abbuehl’s name on the CD cover, is it unreasonable to expect that we should be able to hear her vocals? They are there, sure. But they tend to linger back in the mix (and, remember, this is not a cluttered mix), adding tonal color beneath Brederode’s piano parts. One could argue that the human voice is but another instrument and that it needn’t necessarily stand out; that, like softly thrummed upright bass or delicately struck vibes, it can serve well in the background, creating an added layer of sound. But, in this context, such a notion defies expectations of a solo artist. When I listen to a singer’s work, I want to hear her singing!
Further, Abbuehl is not merely lending voice to by-the-book love songs or tried-and-true standards (aside from “Where Flamingos Fly”). Her works are ambitious, mostly marrying her original music compositions to the poetry of James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and Feng Meng-Lung. She reinvents the traditional “Black Is the Color”, basing it on Luciano Berio’s “Folk Songs”. Abbuehl also incorporates the music of Chick Corea and the unlikely Sun Ra. Here we have the recipe for something interesting to happen. But then it doesn’t. Instead, regardless of the source of the music or the words, all of Compass sounds terribly homogenized. Granted, it’s appropriate that an artist would refract through her own prism the work of others. But Susanne Abbuehl mostly succeeds only in diluting her sources.
The Sun Ra track, “A Call for Demons”, certainly has the oddest feel, melodically. But its kookiness becomes an abstraction here; a staid intellectual pursuit. On “Black Is the Color”, May’s clarinet, interacting in a sad duet with Brederode’s harmonium, steals the show, leaving Abbuehl’s sleepy performance behind. Unfortunately, this scenario occurs too often.
Success comes with “Children’s Song #1”, her collaboration with Chick Corea. Its sweet and gentle bounce and twinkling melody make for a perfect lullaby. Once more, Abbuehl’s long, round vowels and almost nonexistent consonants make lyrical interpretation difficult, but I caught a “nightlight” and some “bluebirds” in there. And her voice nearly soars on the sing-songy chorus. Along with “The Twilight Turns from Amethyst”, where she seems particularly enlivened by Joyce’s poem, we are given the rare treat of hearing Abbuehl sing out, rising above the album’s usual legato coos and hushed readings.
I can easily enjoy quiet music or a disc that is nice to fall asleep to. But I do object to vocal jazz as a soporific. I’ve fought off the impulse to nap many times while listening to this CD. Frustratingly, this isn’t even because the material is inherently boring or that the musicians have nothing to say. On paper, this album appears interesting (which, along with being fond of her debut, is why I signed up to review it in the first place). In execution, however, Susanne Abbuehl’s Compass simply communicates very little of its potential.