"One day there was a sound in the air as if two or three or four clouds were whispering together; and this sound came nearer and nearer the house, until the house knew that it was the wings of somebody who was flying and flying and flying. In a little while the house heard a new sound, and this sound grew higher and clearer until the house knew that it was somebody singing and singing and singing."E. E. Cummings, Fairy Tales
"April", indeed, finds a new song, a new airborne sound around the house. The sound belongs to Susanne Abbuehl, making her ECM debut with an album of songs including settings of poems by Edward Estlin Cummings to her own music, settings of her own texts to music of Carla Bley. She also radically reinterprets Monk's deathless "Round Midnight", performs new material written with her keyboardist, and concludes the album with an arrangement of Hindustani vocal music. This last move seems a detour only on first hearing, for her performance of "Mane na" clarifies what may already have been sensed, that Abbuehl is a singer whose work is shaped by more than just the jazz tradition.
Abbuehl, Bley, Cummings... it's an intriguing ABC of deep listening that the singer proposes on what is effectively her first album on a record label with international distribution. In 1997, "I Am Rose", an independently produced album, was issued in Switzerland, her native country, and Holland, her second home (and the country of her second nationality). The album, which included a setting of a Gertrude Stein poem and compositions by Ornette Coleman and Carla Bley next to work by Abbuehl, was well-received by press and radio.
Susanne Abbuehl was born in Berne. Drawn to music at an early age, she wrote her own songs from the outset, and studied harpsichord from age seven. At 17, an exchange program brought her to Los Angeles, where she began vocal studies, also being part of a jazz group that toured the U.S. and Canada. On her return to Europe she studied jazz and classical voice at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague. She also studied with Jeanne Lee (1939-2000), the great American singer who pioneered free jazz vocal techniques, but was also rooted in the standards tradition, African music, the blues. Abbuehl says: "When it comes to singers, Jeanne Lee is by far the one who has influenced me the most." They met in 1992, in Willisau. "I had listened to her music for a long time." A year later, Abbuehl informed her about a vacancy at the Hague Conservatory, the upshot of which was that Lee ended up being Abbuehl's teacher. "She had a very intuitive way of teaching and a 'core quality' in whatever she was doing. She was doing her things with Archie Shepp, with Ran Blake, with Mal Waldron, singing standards, singing avant-garde, working with poetry, with dance. In all things that core element was still very strong. She inspired me and kept encouraging me to work from my own core quality, to go my own way. She was always very generous with her knowledge and advice, acting as a kind of mentor to me. And the way she worked with words was a revelation to me." Subsequently Abbuehl became a member of Jeanne Lee's Music and Dance Ensemble. Lee had this to say about her: "I am impressed with the warmth and the clarity of her voice and the tastefulness with which she sings. Susanne is a thoroughly musical improvising singer. She interprets in a unique and personal way."
An opportunity to study North Indian classical music with Indurama Srivastava in Amsterdam opened up new areas of interest, and Abbuehl was encouraged to go to Bombay to study with Hindustani master singer Prabha Atre; she now keeps returning to her teacher regularly. Nothing on "April" suggests "world-fusion", but Abbuehl's studies of North Indian classical music have impacted, subtly, on her jazz singing, too. The care taken with each phrase, the treatment of the tone, the shaping of the note, considerations of these things have been charged by her work with Prabha Atre. But still, she emphasises, "I'm not interested at all in any fusion of jazz and Indian music. 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."
Susanne Abbuehl has given concerts of her own music in India, too, to considerable acclaim, the Times of India noting, "She puts a spell on the listener!" - a judgement that her ECM album bears out. It's a recording of almost hypnotic persuasion.
Central concerns on "April" are the music of Carla Bley and the poetry of E. E. Cummings (1894-1962), both enthusiasms of Abbuehl's for a long time. Bley's music, and its irreducible poetic compression, has influenced Abbuehl's composing, too. And there are aspects of "April" and its contrapuntal grace that bring to mind the way in which the old Giuffre Trio once played Carla Bley tunes. The singer acknowledges the influence. "I still love the early Jimmy Giuffre records which still sound so contemporary, soundwise, and in the whole range of interactions and the shape of the sound."
Bley and Cummings have something in common, a sense of artistic independence, a way of going, successfully, against the grain. As Cummings once said, "To be nobody-but-myself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting." That could be a Carla Bley motto, too. (A tangential note: there is, furthermore, a real Bley/Cummings connection. In 1972, Carla recorded John Cage's setting of E. E. Cummings's "Forever and Sunsmell").
Abbuehl on poetry-setting: "I'm mostly interested in a very private kind of poetry. I like Robert Creeley, Robert Lax as well as Cummings and many others... a very private poetry is what I look for. Really... small, sometimes. And also the poetry that is more about the things that vibrate with the words, where not everything is spelled out. Where, reading it, everything else comes across, the things that vibrate along with it and the things that are not said."
Cummings's poetry has been set by a lot of musical heavyweights: the long list includes Leonard Bernstein, Berio, Boulez, Cage, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, and Ned Rorem. Jazz settings of Cummings are overdue, however, for Cummings liked jazz, early jazz at least, as he liked cubism and burlesque and the Krazy Kat comic strip. Abbuehl's arrangements catch some of the playfulness in Cummings, as well as the sadness, and she makes more of the implied rhythms in the texts than many of her distinguished new music contemporaries have done.
Some of the Carla Bley tunes are now almost modern "standards" - "Ida Lupino", "Closer", "Seven" - Abbuehl gives each of them a new twist, for instance seeing "Ida Lupino" as a piece for a child; the words she gives it are written from a child's perspective. "Seven" is intercut with a reading of Cummings's "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond". "A.I.R (All India Radio)", an unusual choice - originally written for the Desert Band (with Don Cherry) on "Escalator Over The Hill" - is now a vehicle for Abbuehl's wordless vocal.
Susanne Abbuehl: "The thing about Bley as well is that same thing I observed with Jeanne: I found Carla's compositions to have a very strong centre which stays audible or appears clearly in each interpretation. Yet, the compositions offer much space for a personal rendering. A.I.R., indeed a rather unusual choice at first sight, has been one of my favourites for a long time, mostly also because of Don Cherry's part in it. He is one of my favourite voices in jazz."
"Round Midnight", that most widely-covered of chestnuts, has never sounded as stark and lonely as it does here, with Abbuehl's voice accompanied only by Brederode on the Indian harmonium. (The harmonium has an important role to play on the album).
Finally, there is Prabha Atre's "Mane na", played by the Abbuehl group in a free arrangement that retains the essential features of the midnight raga.
In all, a most auspicious debut.
***Susanne Abbuehl met her pianist and clarinettist while studying in the Hague; they have been working together for eight years now. Dutch keyboardist Wolfert Brederode, co-composer of three pieces on "April", studied jazz & classical piano at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. He performs in Europe with the Wolfert Brederode/Erik Ineke Quintet, the Wolfert Brederode Trio, the Arnulf Ochs Quartet and the Jeroen Pek Band, and previously worked with Ack van Rooyen, Tony Lakatos, Dave Liebman and Rachel Gould. In addition to the piano, he has been playing on an Indian harmonium for the Abbuehl group since Susanne imported the instrument from Bombay in 1997.
Like Abbuehl and Brederode, German reedman Christof May also has a master's degree from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague where he studied jazz & classical saxophone. He is currently studying classical clarinet and bass clarinet at the Royal Conservatory and will soon be completing his degree. He has been specializing in clarinet works of the 20th century, with a special interest in solo repertoire. May has performed with chamber music ensembles such as M.use, performing works by György Kurtág, Isak Goldschneider, Panaiotis Leftheris, working under conductors including Reinbert de Leeuw and Kevin John Edusei. Bulgarian folk music has been another important influence for him. Christof May has collaborated with modern dance companies, played theatre music, and performed and recorded with diverse groups.
Swiss percussionist Samuel Rohrer is the newcomer in the line-up, and has been playing with Abbuehl since 1999. Rohrer studied drums at the Swiss Jazz School in Berne and at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He performs in Europe with the Patrick Muller Trio, the Donat Fisch-Samuel Rohrer Quartet, Flischs News (with Raetus Flisch and Christoph Grab) and the Lars Lindvall Quartet/Tentet and has worked with Erik Truffaz, Malcolm Braff, John Voirol and Hal Crook.