Susanne Abbuehl startled listeners in 2001 with her debut release, April, in which she took on the poems of e.e. cummings, and created lyrics for a Carla Bley composition. A studied and original vocalist -- she worked with Jeanne Lee -- she is also a solid composer. Her aesthetic and restrained approach lend themselves easily to Manfred Eicher's production M.O. On Compass, Abbuehl and her band, which features the wonderful clarinetist Christoph May, dig deep into the words of James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and the music of Sun Ra and Chick Corea. The project is once more refined and mannered yet utterly ambitious beginning with her original composition "Bathyal." Here May's bass clarinet introduces Wolfert Brederode's piano that is given dimension by drummer Lucas Niggli's brushed cymbal and snare work. Abbuehl's voice enters not as whisper but as soft yet full-throated, "Do not run just yet/Do not hide..." ushering in a call to wait and observe, to look around and be touched by the bloom of flowers, by the environs as a balm for a fallen heart. The rippling piano sends waves just above the lyric, and offers the listener a way in. On "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," (a daring chance in a jazz setting after Patty Waters '60s recording broke all the rules), is not so much referential as reverential. She bases her read of John Jacob Niles' tune on Luciano Berio's folk song arrangement. It's nearly pastoral, but May's clarinet adds an eerie dimension, making it one of the most beautifully articulated versions on record. (She also translates another of Berio's folk songs gorgeously in the French traditional song "La Foliare.") Abbuehl's musical composition to accompany a section from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake is a slightly angular, with hand percussion accompanying the piano and bass clarinet. Likewise her composition for William Carlos Williams' poem Primrose is skeletal, slightly quirky and off kilter and fits Williams' taut poem like a leather glove. But it is in her own lyrics set to the music of Ra's "A Call for Demons," that the other side of her particular brilliance shines so brightly: taking Ra's suspended spatial approach, she economically creates a "call" to the forces of light and darkness that is seductive and bluesy, almost like a torch song, a lover's call. As May's clarinet whimsically touches the melody of Corea's "Children's Song No. 1," accompanied by shakers used ever so tautly and sparely, the piano enters and provides a harmonic backdrop for Abbuehl, Her singsong vocal embraces the whimsy but creates a new space for reverie and nostalgia that is not sophomoric but romantic and urban. Compass is a record of dreams and visions, shared sparely yet frankly with images and tensions subtly revealed, opening song into a netherworld that encompasses the balance of all things. It goes further than April, is more confident and assured, and Abbuehl's compositions and lyrics are the place of entrance and quiet revelation.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek