In her albums of sung poetry, Susanne Abbuehl grants words room to move. For her, “setting verse” implies more than the pinning of a poem’s cadences to a fixed arrangement. On “The Gift”, as on the earlier recordings “April” and “Compass”, she insinuates herself inside the texts, explores their inner rhythms and their melodies and meanings, and sets them free to gently float and sway. The approach is beautifully realized on this third ECM album by the Swiss-Dutch singer, recorded in the South of France in the summer of 2012 with, perhaps, the most responsive band she has yet led. As with the earlier discs, Manfred Eicher produced the recording.
Poetry embraced on this occasion includes words by Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, Sara Teasdale, Wallace Stevens, and Susanne’s own lyrics. Where “Compass” was an album whose texts spoke of voyages, “The Gift” is more concerned with the pleasures of the harbour and the homestead, with understanding the richness and fecundity of one’s own territory through the changing seasons: “Futile – the Winds / To a Heart in port – / Done with the Compass / Done with the Chart!” – so sings Abbuehl, channeling Emily Dickinson’s spirit, on “Wild Nights”.
Dickinson (1830-1886), Emily Brontë (1818-1848), and Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) were all, by choice, temperament or circumstance, reclusive writers. But fixed location need not temper the flight of the imagination: a landscape or soundscape can be dreamt up, if necessary. Dickinson, again: “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee / One clover, and a bee. /And revery. /And revery alone will do, / If bees are few”.
The idea of interpreting a world through selected signs recurs through the poems. “In My Room,” derives from Wallace Stevens’ poem “On the Surface of Things” (first published in 1919): “In my room, the world is beyond my understanding; / But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.” With a few broad brushstrokes, the Abbuehl group illuminates it...
Seven years have passed since the release of “Compass”. In the interim, work on the music has continued, and Abbuehl’s band has been reshaped. Wolfert Brederode remains a central presence in the line-up. The Dutch pianist has been a musical partner for two decades; Brederode and Abbuehl met while studying at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. The singer praises Brederode’s capacity for shaping music in the moment, for implementing ideas and developing them. In Abbuehl’s group, Brederode’s patient chords and subtle harmonies always serve the context, without a hint of self-display.
Swiss trumpet and flugelhorn player Matthieu Michel has been a highly intuitive musical partner since 2009. “We never talk about a direction. Everything arises out of the music, without any conceptualizing.” Matthieu Michel’s flugelhorn is often an evocative second lead voice here; sometimes flugelhorn and voice drift together in graceful unisons, as on “This And My Heart”…
The sensitive playing of Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivuori was previously heard on Tomasz Stanko’s “Dark Eyes” album. Susanne first worked with Louhivouri in Helsinki in 2007. “He has an affinity for the voice. In his playing he always finds new approaches, new colours, and his playing opens up the music as a whole.”
Where, on earlier discs, Abbuehl drew on the works of other jazz composers – including music of Chick Corea and Sun Ra on “Compass”, and Carla Bley and Thelonious Monk on “April” – the music of “The Gift” is written almost entirely by Abbuehl. The sole exception is “Soon (Five Years ago)”, with music by Wolfgang Lackerschmid and lyrics by Susanne.