Schnabel Shakes Up Books, Bottles & Bamboo in New CD

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BOOKS, BOTTLES AND BAMBOO / SCHNABEL: Burnout*. Toy. Drunken Books. Dying Swan Under the Bamboo Moon. Luggage. Loss Laments. Reef. Plop. SILVER: Peace / Anna-Lena Schnabel, a-sax; Florian Weber, pn/*melodica; Thomas Morgan, bs; Dan Weiss, dm. / Enja ENJ-9636

Here’s something wildly different: an atonal, no-holds-barred jam session featuring the quartet led by alto saxist Anna-Lena Schnabel, and in the first track a “melodica” (sounds like an accordion to me) in place of the usual piano. Judging from this album, Schnabel is a fired-up jazz composer who plays a mean yet cool-sounding alto sax, and the performances are as much about collective group improvisation. In other words, Schnabel’s music, though purely jazz and not really tied too closely to formal structure, has a structure within each piece that is closely adhered to by all concerned. Thus whenever one of the musicians plays a solo—the leader included—it must contribute to the melodic and harmonic progression of the music as a whole. This has always been a feature of the best German jazz, going back as far as Hans Koller, the Mangelsdorff brothers and Jutta Hipp in the 1950s, and it remains a feature today even of such avant-garde German jazz composers as Alexander von Schlippenbach,

Indeed, strictly as an improviser I found myself fascinated by Schnabel’s playing. Despite her complex lines, sometimes going outside the strange, linear chord changes she has written, she employ a tone and style reminiscent of Koller or Lee Konitz, whose work inspired Koller to begin with. She also has a good sense of humor in her compositions, as is witnessed by the playful, off-kilter introductions to Toy and Drunken Books, or the flutter-tongue antics in the latter to simulate (I think) uncontrolled page-turning by said books in the spirit of intoxication. Despite a number of influences that I hear in her work, in the end her music sounds like no one else’s, at least not on this album. It is strange, moving, and tongue-in-cheek humorous all at the same time. Perhaps a combination of Monk and Ornette Coleman might best describe what she does, but I’m not sure that even that does her justice.

Pianist and melodica player Florian Weber is also fully on her wavelength, embellishing and supporting everything she does with solos that combine swing with Harry Partch-like harmonics (note, especially, his tack piano or paper-in-the-strings piano solo—I’m not sure which it is—on Drunken Books). As in so much modern jazz nowadays, drummer Weiss plays around and in between the beats rather than on them, which further obscures the basic pulse. On Dying Swan Under the Bamboo Moon, Schnabel enters playing the alto so high up in its range that at first I thought sure she had switched to flute, but as her volume increased I realized it was indeed a saxophone. This is a piece so wildly impressionistic that someone like Arthur Honegger would have been proud to call it his own: sparse, slow, atmospheric and only occasionally touching the base tonality. It is also played only by Schnabel and Weber at first, with Weiss coming in only for atmospheric percussion effects after a passage in which Schnabel merely breathes through her horn.

One of the most interesting and impressive things about this album is that every track is different in style, mood and structure, yet you can’t imagine anyone else other than Schnabel having written and of these pieces. Following her dying swan, she gives us deep, almost guttural groans on the alto in Luggage, a piece that plods forward like the Frankenstein monster stomping down a hill. The intensity grown through wild, flying piano passages around the steady bass pulse (played by both the bass and the piano left hand) while the drums go absolutely crazy around them. One of the more interesting aspects of this album, at least through the first six tracks, is the way the album decelerates, starting from the whirling mélange of sound on Burnout and working its way to the almost still, stately progression of tones on Loss Laments. There’s no doubt about it: everywhere you go in this extraordinary album, you encounter something different but equally as effective as the music preceding what you are just (now) hearing. On Loss Laments it’s mostly the piano trio that speaks so eloquently as the leader sits out of much of it, and although Weber is not so much concerned with altered chord changes their loose interplay put me in mind, a little, of the old Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio.

anna-lena-schnabelIn Reef, Schnabel present us with another musical enigma in music that is at once built on both tonality (mostly G major) and chromatic movement that tries to edge itself outside the chords, but inevitably it pulls itself back to G as the tempo doubles and the whole quartet swings. Plop, which tends towards F major, has a sort of strange mechanical feel to the pulse, as if the music were being played by robots—and Schnabel’s odd, quirky alto solo doesn’t dispel this notion. During the bass-drum exchange, it almost, but not quite, sounds as if the rhythm is coming apart, like a robot with loose bolts, and this is how we end the piece, with the quartet deconstructing the music.

Schnabel ends this slightly mad recital with the one piece she didn’t write herself, Horace Silver’s Peace, played in a lovely, relaxed manner with lots of space around the notes. This one starts out with just the alto and bass in an intimate duet; when the piano and drums enter, it is just for color around them, like nighttime blinks of fireflies in the deep indigo. What a remarkable album!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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