Susanne Abbuehl interview

From 2013. With music composed to interpret the poetry of Sara Teasdale, Emily Brontë, Wallace Stevens, and above all Emily Dickinson, Susanne Abbuehl has retreated from the world to paradoxically embrace it on The Gift. As part of this process the …

Published: 10 Nov 2019. Updated: 2 years.

From 2013.

With music composed to interpret the poetry of Sara Teasdale, Emily Brontë, Wallace Stevens, and above all Emily Dickinson, Susanne Abbuehl has retreated from the world to paradoxically embrace it on The Gift.

As part of this process the Swiss/Dutch singer has changed her band, with only pianist Wolfert Brederode remaining from earlier albums April and Compass. Drummer Olavi Louhivuori, now in Oddarrang, who appeared to wider notice on Tomasz Stańko’s Dark Eyes is an apposite choice here, although his role within the chamber-jazz settings means he must remain subtle, as it’s an album that values space, a sense of longing, an exiling of overt rhythm, and the pleasures of the aftermath of a single note of music. For Susanne Abbuehl the singer herself was drawn specifically to poems from the 19th century, as she explains in this interview, and a new clarity that she needed, and desired, to compose herself.

Brad Mehldau, setting Sara Teasdale poetry to music on his album Love Songs with Anne Sofie von Otter, has commented “the conviction of her words really rang through to me. I feel like these poems are singularly, vitally female, and that seemed so right for the female voice.” Would you agree, and if so why?

Not sure. I never think of poems of being female or male. I chose Sara Teasdale’s words because they spoke to me, because they sounded like music, like songs, because they conjured strong feelings. I never thought of them in the way Brad describes it. I am a little ashamed, too, now, to say that I was completely unaware of Brad setting Teasdale’s poems to music, even though I know his music of course and met him; and also, Sofie von Otter is one of the singers I love listening to (I know and enjoy her Weill record for example).

What fundamentally attracted you to the poetry of Sara Teasdale and specifically her poems ‘The Cloud’ and ‘By Day, By Night’?

‘The Cloud’ is my very favourite poem by her. Whenever I start getting attracted to a poet, I try to get a hold and read his or her entire body of work. And usually, only a handful of poems speak so strongly to me that I feel the need to sing them. Both those poems had this immediacy to them. In ‘The Cloud’, there’s a strong image of the natural world and of movement. Also, a wild, untamed, free feeling. In ‘By Day, By Night’ (whose original title is ‘After Parting’) I just loved this bittersweet feeling of strength after a loss.

How would you explain the enduring appeal of Emily Dickinson whose poetry forms the bulk of the textual basis of the album?

I think her poems address a part of our being, of our longing, that cannot even be put into words. I love the recurrent theme of the natural world; bees, clover, fields. Also, I think it is inspiring to know that she produced a huge body of work even though she did not know fame during her lifetime. Only very few of her poems were published. I really love her letters, too. One of my favourite lines from on of her letters is “The moon rides like a girl through a Topaz town”. That’s how I’d love to sing.

*Is *The Gift* an album about a retreat from the world, or conversely an embracing of it?*

It is both, really! It is by feeling and connecting to what one might call the core, that embracing and taking in the outside becomes possible. For me, The Gift is also about very deep layers of memory, experienced in childhood: physical memories, memories of the senses, of being in the woods, on the lake, in the mountains.

Why did you feel the need to change your group for this new project?

I had met Olavi in 2007 in Helsinki, where he played with us at a festival. It was then that I decided that it would be with him if I was to record again. Matthieu and I both teach at the music university in Lausanne. I just felt like singing with him, so I asked him if we could try some of my compositions. We met to rehearse, and after 15 minutes it was clear that it would work. Wolfert, Matthieu and I started playing as a trio in 2010, and we all felt good about it.

The musical conversation between Wolfert Brederode and you seems very intuitive. What would you say are the aspects of his playing that appeal to you most; and how does he manage to get beyond the arc of the songs? For instance, is it a particular rhythmic sensibility?

In our best moments, the interaction feels telepathic. We share a lot of the same sea of references, from jazz, but also from classical music. We both have a strong background in jazz, then went on and tried to find our musical language. I think one of the most important aspects of his playing to me is that he does not sound like anyone else. He can create from an idea thrown at him, he can create a mood from an abstract image.

Then, I like his sense of dynamics and the sound he gets out of the instrument. In my group, I want people who are able to create an exclusive way of playing for that particular group – who don’t just do what they always do. Wolfert did just that.

We sometimes play duo concerts, too, and I always feel carried and lifted by him. Manfred Eicher [who produced the album] immediately loved his playing when we recorded April, and Wolfert later was able to record for ECM as a leader, too.

You’re quoted as saying that Olavi Louhivuori has "an affinity for the voice". How do you detect this in his playing and could you indicate a few examples on The Gift?

He is very specific with frequencies. He chooses a specific instrumentation for each song, a different set of sounds. In ‘Forbidden Fruit’, his low register playing combines wonderfully with the frequencies of the voice. And in the two versions of ‘This And My Heart’ (the first one being the ‘Day’ version, the second one the ‘Night’ version) he plays a very circular deep groove that lifts voice and flugelhorn. He is a composer himself, leads his own groups, and knows compositions by heart very quickly. He’s a drummer with full view of the entire group.

When you moved to Los Angeles from Switzerland as a teenager did you come to a point that you knew your future musical direction by this sharp new world you encountered; or did that come later in India when you studied there, or another time entirely?

Well, in Los Angeles I shifted from instrumental classical music (I had played the harpsichord, baroque music as a child) to vocal jazz. I was part of the jazz ensemble at high school, and we toured the US and Canada. That is where I became familiar with the Great American Songbook. I had listened to jazz as a child, because my father was a fan of Duke Ellington, Ella, Louis Armstrong. But it was in a passive way. I actively got into it when I was in the US. When I returned to Switzerland, I started to actively prepare for professional jazz studies.

There is less reliance on jazz composers on this album and more on your own compositions. What prompted your decision to dig deeper within your own work for The Gift?

This was not so much a conscious decision but a natural development. Whenever I brought in new compositions, the band loved playing them. I felt encouraged by that. For The Gift, I was drawn to poems from the 19th century, and it was somehow clear from the start that I needed and wanted to compose myself. I also was encouraged a lot by Manfred Eicher who kept commenting positively on my own music.

When you were taught by Jeanne Lee, what fire did she ignite within you to further your attitude towards performance and composition? Can you recall your first impression of her?

I first discovered her music when I worked in a record store. Later, I met her at the Willisau festival, backstage, and again in Amsterdam, with Reggie Workman’s group, before she became my teacher. I wrote about meeting her on my blog. I love EVERYTHING she did, and I can only say this about a few other artists. So when my favourite voice in jazz became my teacher, it was a real blessing. What struck me maybe most was that in her art, words, music and dance were all important parts of a whole. I loved her sense of the musicality of language. And she composed in a very personal way. But she showed me also that a singer can be just as personal when singing material that was written by someone else as when singing own compositions.

How do you relate to the idea of ‘jazz singing’? Is it a concept that has changed since you began your career; or has it always been a flexible notion?

Well, jazz is my musical home, my harbour. I listened extensively to most of the singers in the history of jazz, and I appreciate so many for so many different reasons. I have a sea of references from listening, and this means a lot to me. During my studies, I sang standards a lot, and I learnt so much from it. My idea of jazz singing for myself is that by touching and modelling musical material in my own way I can show my personal approach.

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Jason Rebello interview

From 2013. Anything But Look, keyboardist Jason Rebello’s first album as a leader since 2007’s Jazz Rainbow is one of the comebacks of 2013, a return to the limelight as a leader of one of the most precocious talents of the 1990s Plucked from the …

Published: 10 Nov 2019. Updated: 22 months.

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From 2013. Anything But Look, keyboardist Jason Rebello’s first album as a leader since 2007’s Jazz Rainbow is one of the comebacks of 2013, a return to the limelight as a leader of one of the most precocious talents of the 1990s

Plucked from the height of his reach on the jazz scene of the day to tour the world with a global rock star, the keyboardist, 44, spent significant stretches on the road and recording with Sting appearing on the Brand New Day, All This Time, and the Sacred Love albums, and most recently as a member of blues-rock guitar legend Jeff Beck’s band where he can be heard on such albums as Emotion and Commotion, and Live at Ronnie Scott’s.

His return to the jazz fold can be interpreted as something of a liberation for a musician who nevertheless unites several types of music within his overarching concept. Fundamentally there’s jazz, inspired by Herbie Hancock deep down, and there’s soul, a music of continuum that has Stevie Wonder as its lodestar, and then there’s keyboards-led jazz-rock all coming together in a prodigious very natural technique.

Living near Bath in the south-west of England for the last 17 years Rebello has been absent from the jazz scene, he says, for several practical reasons. “It’s mainly because I was touring with Jeff Beck and Sting. When I had time off I was spending it with my family and didn’t feel motivated. Jazz Rainbow was made when my kids were young and I was watching these TV programmes, learning all the tunes. It amused me doing ‘Thunderbirds’!” Now having left the Jeff Beck band, he says: “If I was going to rely on touring I’d be missing out on my own stuff and spending a lot of time away from home. It’s been 12 years touring.”

While not exactly a maiden voyage, as Rebello has certainly been there, done that, and got the T-shirt as much as anyone on the jazz scene currently around, he is enjoying discovering a new scene by attending concerts and earlier in the month enjoyed “a fantastic gig” given by someone from his own generation ex-Loose Tubes saxophonist Julian Argüelles playing with the Golden trio’s pianist Kit Downes and drummer James Maddren, with hot newcomer bassist Sam Lasserson, who Ethan Iverson of hit US trio The Bad Plus sought out to gig with in London earlier in the year, members of the “next” generation. “I’m finding it quite inspiring,” Rebello says speaking on the phone from his home.

It’s hardly a case of looking back, though; as part of the subtext of Anything But Look is about the here and now. Rebello initially sprang to prominence during the late-1980s and early-1990s “jazz boom” in the UK when a wave of new talent he became closely identified with who included the totemic figures of Courtney Pine and Andy Sheppard, Tommy Smith, Julian Joseph, and Steve Williamson, inspiring a wider public and renewed media fascination caught up in the new jazz, with a particularly emphasis on homegrown and often youthful players who connected with a generation coming to the music for the first time and who hardly related to the hitherto fairly impenetrable image of jazz in the UK.

Rebello signed to a major label maybe too soon in his development and recorded for RCA’s Novus imprint, with no less a figure than Wayne Shorter producing his 1990 debut, A Clearer View, that made his name. Influenced by a wide ranging musical input including jazz-rock fusion, and soul music, Rebello had studied at Guildhall, one of the most progressive music colleges in terms of teaching jazz at the time, and A Clearer View clearly announced a significant new presence on the UK and wider international jazz scene. Rebello followed this bright beginning with Keeping Time, the soulful Make It Real, with guests including Maxi Jazz, later of Faithless, and Last Dance. And then there was a gap that would only end with the release of Next Time Round which Rebello recorded in New York, to be followed eight years later by a tentative return to his heartland genre with Jazz Rainbow, a whimsical side project trio album based around children’s television and movie music themes.

The brand new album, Anything But Look, was a year in the making, and is the real McCoy, a mix of contemporary jazz, funk, soul, Latin and fusion. Recorded at the Sphere studio in London with Rebello joined by bassist Karl Rasheed-Abel and drummer Troy Miller and a large cast of musicians and singers also featuring on the album, including bass guitar session king Pino Palladino (heard to effect only last year on José James’ infectious ‘Trouble’), Paul Stacey, Jeremy Stacey, Joy Rose, Xantoné Blacq, Sumudu Jayatilaka, 19-year-old star in the making Jacob Collier, Miles Bould, and The Vigil’s Tim Garland, plus Rebello’s own son George who is just 14 and who plays drums on ‘Is This How?’ the album’s most radio-friendly track featuring the remarkable vocals of Will Downing.

Signed to Lyte Records, run from the County Down base of drummer David Lyttle who Rebello guested with in trio mode at this year’s City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival, Rebello wrote everything on the album, with “input”, he says, “on a couple of the songs from the singers.” It’s a fine collection of songs and matching instrumentals that represents Rebello’s most assured, mature, and significant album to date.

The album opens with ‘Know What You Need’ featuring Omar, the soul singer who Rebello first knew as a student at Guildhall and who, Rebello says, he “completely respects and admires”. Next is the story of a train romance, ‘The Man On The Train’, featuring Barnsley-born British-Sri Lankan singer Sumudu Jayatilaka here on one of the best songs of the album lyrically. Rebello took the advice of his former Sting playing partner guitarist/producer Kipper (Mark Eldridge) who knew Sumudu and thought that it would be a good idea to include her on Anything But Look. And then there’s the major instrumental features ‘Without A Paddle’ and laidback title track ‘Anything But Look’ with its big Mini-Moog solo, set against drummer Troy Miller’s expansive beat.

The remaining tracks: ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, featuring singer Alicia Carroll; ‘With Immediate Effect’; the superb ‘Is This How?’ featuring classy US R&B/soul star Will Downing whose version of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ was an unlikely dance hit in the late-1980s; ‘In The Thick Of It’ featuring Jacob Collier; ‘New Joy’, where Rebello is reunited with singer Joy Rose who appeared on Rebello's albums Make It Real and Last Dance; and finally ‘Lighten Up the Load’, featuring singer Xantoné Blacq known for his work with the late Amy Winehouse, complete the album.

Preparing for Anything But Look Rebello says one thing he didn’t want to do was embark on a trio album. “There are so many trio albums. Part of the thing instead is in some way to showcase people I’ve known and liked. I basically hope people who are working with me will do well themselves, everything is a balance of friendship: it’s family, but not literally!”

Anything But Look is keyboards-informed and further personalised by the inclusion of the singers Rebello has recruited. Listen to ‘Know What You Need’ and you’ll hear Rebello’s Headhunters-like accompaniment behind Omar’s voice, a link to one aspect of Rebello’s soulful signature 1990s sound and here more convincing and effortlessly grooving than ever. His solo on the track has that mobility and sheer touch only a very few jazz musicians can ever aspire to, let alone accomplish.

While clearly a studio album produced using modern studio methods more familiar in soul or rock production the album does not feel overproduced and part of this revolves around an analogue-inclined process that saw Rebello salvaging an old Mini-Moog keyboard, a favourite he had put away with the advent of digital technology and one that he had bought from an unlikely vendor, 1980s band Ultravox. “The analogue kit was a bit much to carry around and it would break down. So the Mini-Moog all went in a box and stored away. Working with Jeff Beck got me working with virtual synths, but the modern Mini-Moog never sounded any good so I got my old one out. It wasn’t working but I got it fixed and it sounds just amazing.”

The album is full of startling Mini-Moog and you can hear it with its futuristic yet very human sound on ‘In The Thick of It’, ‘With Immediate Effect’, and a brilliant solo on the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, as well as the title track, the poetic-sounding ‘Anything But Look.’ Rebello explains the title. “As human beings we’re in this slight predicament. We’re always looking, always feeling that something is not quite right whether it’s music, career, relationships, ‘I’m not a good enough person’. It’s as if we’ll do anything to get away from not being satisfied. It’s almost as if it’s too frightening to say we’re OK.” And back on the scene once more Rebello is more than OK. Story: Stephen Graham