Swiss singer Susanne Abbuehl seems an artist ready made for ECM Records' aesthetic -- quiet, contemplative, romantic with a measure of melancholy, with an exquisitely beautiful voice. Abbuehl's voice, minimally backed by piano, clarinet, and percussion, is at center stage, and it is worthy of such close attention. Clear, relying on interpretation of the lyric and textural differences to convey its expression rather than melodic improvisation, Abbuehl's is a voice to savor by allowing it to wash over you rather than trying to pursue it.
Susanne is clearly in love with words; when they are good, her singing is at its very best. She is capable of singing beautifully without words (as she does on Carla Bley's "A.I.R." and the adaptation of a Hindustani tune, "Mane Na"), but seems more able to realize the full expression of her vocal talents when she has glorious words to wrap them around. It should come as no surprise, then, that five of the songs on this disc are musical settings of the poetry of E.E. Cummings. Cummings experimented with punctuation and syntax, and his poetry has a playful quality about it, even when it is wistful or melancholy. "Yes Is a Pleasant Country", the album's opener, unfolds slowly, with lots of open space and some tuned drums setting the stage for Wolfert Brederode's Paul Bley-like piano and the entrance of Abbuehl's voice. The musical settings play with form as well, offering a floating, dreamy canvas on which the words sit like clouds: "love is a deeper season / than reason; /my sweet one /(and april's where we're)."
Abbuehl offers her own lyrics to go with Carla Bley's lovely "Ida Lupino", and she is clearly influenced by Cummings' work as well as, perhaps, modern poets such as Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath. The marriage of word and music is so intoxicating to Abbuehl that it barely matters what the words are when she sings the opening phrase of the song: "blue what you is I no / tiger in the snow . . ." The same is true on "Closer", another piece with Bley's music and Abbuehl's words, and "All I Need", a composition by pianist Wolfert Brederode with minimal lyrics by Susanne.
"A.I.R. (All India Radio)" comes from Carla Bley's operatic production Escalator Over the Hill, and it makes explicit Abbuehl's love of and influence by Indian music. She has studied North Indian classical music in Amsterdam with Indurama Srivastava as well as spending time in Bombay working with Hindustani mastersinger Prabha Atre. "I'm not interested at all in any fusion of jazz and Indian music", says Susanne, "It's more that I discovered new ways of musical thinking and expression that really interest me. There are also certain parallels with some kinds of jazz, like the cyclical form whereupon you improvise. And at times the idea, too, that the composition can be a means of transport, if you will, to base your personal expression on." So, while you won't hear the sounds of pan-global musical fusion on April, you will hear that Abbuehl has been influenced by her studies of Asian music in terms of her focus, concentration, and ability to sing in a manner that suggests the surrender of ego.
Abbuehl does one standard jazz tune on her debut, the classic Monk tune "Round Midnight", with lyrics by Bernie Hanighen. The lyrics might seem a bit hackneyed in the hands of a lesser singer, but the very stark version offered here, with only harmonium backing up the singer's voice, creates a feeling of nearly unbearable loneliness and sadness. It lacks the usual attempts by performers and arrangers to "do Monk" when covering his compositions, and it therefore demands listening with fresh ears. The concluding "Mane Na", a midnight raga, offers an exotic air without seeming contrived. The instrumentation is one key element: though the harmonium sets up a drone, the muted drums and use of clarinet rescue this from seeming like a hippy experiment in psychedelic Indian influences. Quite the contrary, Abbuehl gives the entire thing an air of legitimacy that can't be shaken, and it is a fine and fitting conclusion to an auspicious debut album.