There hasn’t been a debut big band jazz album on as ambitious a level as the Fabia Mantwill Orchestra’s initial release, Em.Perience (streaming at Spotify) in a long time. Maybe since Asuka Kakitani’s similarly symphonic first record. The vast scope of the saxophonist/singer/bandleader’s ideas, her lush East African-inspired melodicism and outside-the-box arrangements will sweep you off your feet. To compare a lot of this to Darcy James Argue and Maria Schneider would not be overhype. Albums like this are what people who run music blogs live for. Mantwill has an exceptional ear for textures and a penchant for unusual pairings of instruments, and alludes to an amazingly eclectic range of influences without aping any of them.
The first sparkling riffs over the lush string section on the first song, a lavish arrangement of Becca Stevens’ Ophelia, are from Milena Hoge’s harp. After the second chorus, a spiky Portuguese guitar takes over. Stormy low brass kicks in beneath muted trumpet and orchestral percussion, foreshadowing the moment when the wounded warrior gazes into the ocean, sees the suicide girl’s ghost and decides life is worth living after all. It’s part Moody Blues, part Gil Evans, part Nico’s Chelsea Girl with a singer who hits all the notes. What a way to open the record.
The rest of it is almost all Mantwill compositions, the first titled Pjujeck. Trombonist Nils Landgren kicks it off, hard, answered tersely by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, the strings ushering in the most vastly expansive, exuberant dance theme you will hear this year. The two soloists engage in a funky upward drive, Landgren’s jaunty New Orleans-isms eventually giving way to Rosenwinkel’s surreal, 180-degree detour into deep-space ambience, which Mantwill ties up in a neat package at the end.
She sings in Swahili in Sasa Ndio Sasa (Here and Now), inspired by her travels in East Africa. A suspenseful, droning bass intro bows out for a bouncily hypnotic, circling rondo featuring the “Tanzanian Kids Choir.” As symphonic African music, it brings to mind Toumani Diabate’s work with the London Symphony Orchestra, although Mantwill’s composition is somewhat more intricate, from Maria Reich’s warily kinetic viola solo, to Rosenwinkel’s EWI-like envelope-pedal solo, to the jubilantly cantering coda.
Erwachen (German for “Awakening”) is a lavish, balmy Isle of Skye seascape, Mantwill’s sax looking back to a famous 70s ballad: it’s the album’s most straightforwardly beautiful interlude. Marcio Doctor’s shamanic percussion and vibraphone fuel the dynamically expansive Serengeti-scape Kumbukumbu, flugelhornist Konstantin Döben adding a resonant but enigmatic solo before the group shift toward a string-infused pulse that brings to mind McCoy Tyner’s Fly With the Wind.
The lively African-flavored rhythms and riffs continue in Triology. The addition of steel pan in contrast to Daniel Buch’s chuffing baritone sax is an especially clever touch, as is the bari/bass/drums breakdown in the middle, Morphine on whippits.
Tilmann Dehnhard’s alto flute sprouts, afloat in what’s left of the snows in Melodie de la Riviere. a French Riviera early spring tableau. Yet even here, there’s a circling, mutedly leaping African rhythm, Hoge introducing baroque austerity in her solo harp interlude, Döben’s steady, calm flugelhorn following to signal a determined, verdant crescendo. They tiptoe their way out.
The album’s final number is Festival at High Noon, by Megan Ndale, which may have been inspired by a music festival in Nepal but sounds more distinctly Tanzanian or Kenyan…and then Balkan. Violist Reich reaches to the bottom of her register and then swoops skyward, bristling with reverb; tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel memorably follows that same pattern. This is the top contender for best jazz debut of 2021 so far.