At the end of a long afternoon of listening to German bands at the Jazzahead festival in Bremen last weekend, I heard something that really brought the senses alive: the alto saxophone of Anna-Lena Schnabel, a 22-year-old musician from Hamburg appearing in the Aquarian Jazz Ensemble, a quintet led by the drummer Björn Lücker.
The group was impressive all round, notably the leader’s thoughtful, highly melodic compositions and the restrained lyricism of the trumpeter and flügelhornist Claas Ueberschaer. But it was when Schnabel stepped forward for her first solo that the music really took wing.
There’s a poise to her delivery, a fibrous, pliable quality to her tone and a sustained intensity that remind me a little of the young Mike Osborne. In the context of a half-hour set featuring several tunes, it was interesting to hear how much substance she was able to get into each of her short solos — an endangered art. The varied contouring of her phrases makes you feel as though you’re being taken for a very interesting ride. And on the occasional improvised duets between the two horns, she more than held her own with the experienced Ueberschaer.
The next day I was telling someone about what I’d heard, and he told me a little story about Schnabel. It came from a while ago, when she was a member of the national youth jazz orchestra. They were undertaking a project with one of Germany’s several radio big bands, which are stuffed full of case-hardened professionals, and she was due to be featured on one particular piece. She is, apparently, not the most organised of people, and on this day she got her transport arrangements mixed up and arrived late in a bit of a flurry. My informant mimed the looks of exasperation on the faces of the senior players as they watched this flustered novice unpack her horn. But as soon as the first notes came out, he said, they started taking surreptitious looks over their music stands to confirm that such a stream of eloquence really could be coming from this young woman. Yes, they discovered, it could.
You don’t need to take my word for it: the performance in Bremen was filmed, and here it is. It’s worth a half-hour of anybody’s time, and her longest solo of the set, beginning at 25:50 and climbing out of a lovely ballad with surprising chord changes called “Mellow”, is a particular beauty. I suspect, and very much hope, that we’ll be hearing a lot more from the rather extraordinary Ms Schnabel.