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Fabia Mantwill: Realizing a Dream

Fabia Mantwill: Realizing a Dream

Photo credit: Dovile Sermokas

R.J. DeLuke By

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I always had this love for writing, for working with a lot of people, a bigger ensemble.
—Fabia Mantwill
As a child in Germany, it seemed clear Fabia Mantwill would do something in the field of music. She went to a musical kindergarten. That's how early on she was touched by the arts. At the age of 6, she was taking classical piano lessons. By age 10, it was on to saxophone. Now in Berlin, she is a young composer, saxophonist and singer of considerable talent.

Her parents were not musicians, but music always intrigued and inspired her. And now she has her first recording, the ambitious EM.PERIENCE that exhibits all of her influences in grand fashion. The music, almost a suite, sweeps the listener away on journey. She enjoys traveling the world and says she gets some of her musical ideas from those experiences.

"Music has always played a big role for me," says Mantwill via Zoom from Berlin where she lives. "My parents took me to concerts quite a lot. And I was always part of music. I also ballroom danced for quite some years. So there's always been a lot of music and dancing and moving ... I definitely had something right away that attracted me to music. I was just very curious about it."

"It's funny, because I always wanted to learn the violin," she muses. "For some reason my parents never wanted me to. That's how I decided to go with saxophone, because I was like—if I'm not allowed to learn violin, I'm going to go saxophone. So I took some lessons."

As her studies and career moved ahead in her homeland, she was serious enough to broaden out. She came to the United States and participated in the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead residency program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. where she was taught by people like Jason Moran, Eric Revis and Cyrus Chestnut. In Alberta, Canada, she attended an international jazz workshop at the Banff Centre.

At the Betty Carter event, she had an epiphany.

"One of the mentors was J.D. Allen. And he played an old blues record. We had a listening session every morning in this master class. He played this old blues record, and I realized how touched and emotional a lot of the Americans got. And I really felt like it touched me too. But I also felt, at the same time, I couldn't relate to it in the way that all the others could. Because it was not my musical root. It was not my musical tradition. So that was the first time where I started to think about where my musical roots are. What is it that I grew up with? What was the music that I was listening to when I was a kid, unconsciously, which is definitely having a big influence on you? I think that was the first moment where I realized, 'Okay, I somehow want to do something with my musical roots, which was more rooted in the classical music, the European classical music. And I guess that was the first time where this idea came up of—maybe I could do some cross genre kind of thing, which is neither really jazz or classical, but combines certain aspects of both musics."

It was the saxophone through which she started her examination of jazz. "I think my first jazz record was Stan Getz. At about 17, studying at university, I learned what it means to do a transcription and to properly listen to the people you want to check out. I don't know if it was late or not, but I guess 16 or 17 was the age when I really started to be very curious about jazz records and artists in general."

But she got some practical experience with jazz a few years earlier. In a small band she formed, she played some New Orleans-inspired jazz and "just had a bit of fun" playing standards. She also participated in youth band programs in her country.

"We have several different big bands in Germany. Youth big bands for mostly just students. And I was lucky enough to get into the first big band when I was 15. I got in touch with all the jazz students from that area and that really showed me what it means to play in a large context, jazz context. That was also the band I went on tour with the first time to India and that's where I started to really fall in love with traveling and discovering new places and new cultures and new music. That was an interesting and important experience for me."

She was studying jazz and classical music, "quite intensely for a long time. Then I gravitated more toward jazz music. And I started studying at Jazz Institute Berlin." She earned her bachelor's degree there and moved on to get a master's degree at Hamburg University. "That was a pretty amazing program where I could choose my mentors from all around the world that I wanted to work with, which is an amazing chance for me."

Her development as a player and composer finally led her to the moment when she was ready to document her music. EM.PERIENCE is that documentation, done with a European orchestra, with appearances by two American musicians she had met, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Wendel, and noted Swedish trombonist Nils Landgren.

Says Mantwill, "Kurt, I met him during my studies. He was teaching then at the Jazz University here. And that's how we met really. And then I told him about the project and the idea I have, and he was like, 'Man, Fabia, that's amazing. Let me know.' He was free and he came. Ben Wendell, I invited for a residency I did during my master studies in Hamburg. They allow all the masters students to invite one resident, or one musician of their choice, which was in my case Ben Wendel. We worked a lot together. We talked about life. We played a concert together at the Elbjazz Festival in Hamburg. So it was clear to me that I wanted him to play one one track on the album. It's people who kind of have a had an impact on my musical path so far that I tried to involve in the album. Niels Lundgren is a very amazing person, musician and overall human being. So he had to be there as well."

"I kind of took some time to release my debut album, because I really wanted to make sure that it's fully who I am as an artist," says Mantwill. "It's exactly what I wanted to send out into the world and not just do a record, but do the record that I've always been dreaming about."

Those dreams started about five years ago, but Mantwill still wondered if it would ever happen. "Just working toward it and waiting for the right moment to record it and to release it has been a really life changing experience. I'm so happy and proud of the way it turned out because it really feels exactly what I wanted to get out there in many ways. It kind of combines what I'm doing as an artist. Because I'm not only a saxophonist. That's certainly what I studied, but I always had this love for writing, for working with a lot of people, a bigger ensemble. Also combining the roots and the music I love, which is jazz, but also a bit of folk. For me, it's really a good mix of all my curiosities and influences."

The recording does have many influences and it comes together seamlessly. It's uplifting. Mantwill has a wistful singing voice that can take on the qualities of a soothing whisper. She also makes melodic leaps effortlessly. It's pure and alluring. "Ophelia" sounds like part of a pop opera in the beginning, until more complex, driving rhythms emerge. Then it's a travelogue through an exotic land. "Pjujeck" enters with jazz horns and beat, but with strings from the composer's classical influences. It's beautiful music and the solos get soulful. "Saso Ndia Saso" opens with African influence and Mantwill does a masterful job of mixing voices that provide lyrics, melody, harmony and rhythms at the same time. Then it swings in 4/4 and Rosenwinkel adds a free flowing solo. Such is her palette of many colors and moods.

Her sax awakens in "Erwachen." Her sound has overtones of Stan Getz and a deft approach hinting of Paul Desmond. It's a soothing sound, appropriate to the music she composed and the backgrounds she arranged. "Festival at High Noon" is a dish of many flavors—classical, folkloric, jazz highlighted by a raucous Wendell sax solo. It's a fine debut record. In early June she won Arrangement of the Year at the German Jazz Awards for her treatment of "Ophelia," a Becca Stevens composition.

Putting together a large-scale project wasn't easy. Logistical, financial and pandemic challenges awaited.

"I think the musical side is the least crazy because I just love writing and that's really quick. But all the rest—to get the people together, to book a studio, and then corona times. I just felt like, 'OK, I'm just gonna jump into the cold water and see where I can swim and where I get to.' So I'm really happy that it's finally there and it turned out so well."

The album title has significance on a few levels. She explains, "On the one hand, it's empathy, which is something that I find really important writing music. And the other thing is experience, which shows the bridge to where the music comes from. My main source of inspiration is traveling, and learning and growing through experiences. And then empirical. There's also this word ... It's about listening. It's about observing. And then making it your own and putting it through your own filter. And then it comes out the way that you want to talk about it."

Traveling the world definitely has an influence on her writing. "I love to go to different places. I love to change setups, and I love to capture what I not only see, but what's behind the surface. To go a bit deeper behind what it really is that I'm doing, that I'm seeing, that I'm experiencing. That's what I'm trying to achieve with the songs I wrote."

It took a long time to come to fruition, but when finances and other challenges were solved and it came time to play, "it was all pretty quick, actually. Surprisingly quick, I think." She got test pressing last year and finished up her master's degree in December. "I knew I wanted to release in spring or early summer ... I felt like this really has to come out now. I really wanted to share it. I didn't want to wait any longer."

It was recorded when the pandemic lockdown eased up (there would be another one) and there were times where adjustments had to be made. The producer missed a couple days after he came in contact with someone with COVID. "We all kind of made it work. But it definitely required a lot of spontaneous decision making and flexibility."

Touring to support the recording was delayed because of COVID, but there were some small-group gigs scheduled. "But of course, it's totally a different band. It's not this thing. Some of the compositions are similar, but just the way I arranged it for the orchestra is just not possible with a quintet," she notes.

"I'm just taking a bit of patience right now and waiting for things to calm down. We've just really need a bit of time to be sure the concerts we organize, and the concerts we want to play, are actually happening ... I have a bunch of concerts lined up for summer which are open-air concerts mainly. Also a couple of things booked in autumn and winter. I guess people really hope that the vaccine and everything is doing the job and we can slowly start to do concerts and play music together. It's really needed at this point. And not just for the musicians, but also for the audience."

Looking ahead, "I really would love to write and work with a choir one day," she says. "And so getting even bigger ... I'm really keen to work with a symphonic orchestra, for instance. Not classical repertoire. More like kind of freer, jazzier I guess. I don't want to put a genre name to it."

She adds, "But I have all these dreams. I learned if you're patient enough, and if you work hard, one day, they will probably come true."

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