Jenny Scheinman: String Thing

Jenny Scheinman image 0
Monica Frisell

Jenny Scheinman

For the past 15 years Jenny Scheinman has been at the center of jazz’s string renaissance, first in the San Francisco Bay Area and since 1999 in New York City. Both as a bandleader who has recorded a series of increasingly confident albums featuring original material, including two brilliant sessions for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, and as a collaborator with artists such as pianist Myra Melford, Brazilian singer-songwriter Vinicius Cantuaria, drummer Scott Amendola and especially guitarist Bill Frisell, Scheinman has exemplified the string player as creative wild card.

“We have a spotty history,” Scheinman says. “We are orphans, bastard children, wild and unparented. We are the immigrants on the street trying figure out the system and find a way to get along.”

Scheinman notes that immigrants are often the most deeply American citizens, because they come to their nationality by conscious choice rather than by birth. In the same way, string players often have to think through their assimilation into jazz ensembles, making decisions about sound and technique that wouldn’t occur to most saxophonists and trumpeters. “We are asked to learn a language that wasn’t written for the instrument,” Scheinman says. “We have to balance a desire to ‘sound like’ a horn with staying true to our instrument while speaking the language of jazz.”

While Scheinman is an accomplished vocalist who was once part of Jewlia Eisenberg’s avant-Balkan rock band Charming Hostess, she doesn’t sing on 12 Songs. She composed most of the pieces after a series of long tours with Cantuaria and Frisell. Finding herself with some quiet time at home, she sought to clear her mind by writing as much as possible over a two-week period, often jotting down a dozen pieces a day, without considering the musicians who would play the music.

“I was thinking about lyrics, and trying to find the power in a melody that a lyric or a song has,” she says. “I was just emptying out with a specific idea to write down everything I heard. Don’t clever it up halfway through the melody. Don’t think about a clever musician audience. Do it exactly as I’m hearing it. It felt like ladling it out of a reservoir and trying not to taint the water, taking it exactly as it was.”

When she winnowed down the music to a dozen pieces she liked, Scheinman was left with a set of buoyant tunes that harken back to her earliest memories of her family performing folk songs. For the recording, she assembled an orchestral ensemble featuring Ron Miles on cornet, Doug Wieselman on clarinets, Rachelle Garniez on accordion, piano and claviola, bassist Tim Luntzel, drummer Dan Rieser and Frisell, whose guitar work is often more focused and compelling here than on his own recent projects. From the wonderfully woozy opening track, “The Frog Threw His Head Back and Laughed,” which was inspired by a Jim Woodring canvas, to the jittery, carnivalesque “Moe Hawk,” Scheinman has a gift for writing clear, inviting themes.

Raised in a tiny Northern California town near Eureka, Scheinman started playing violin at seven, followed by piano lessons and a passion for jazz. She soaked up tunes playing with her father, who had spent time as a young man performing around Europe as a busking folk singer. She went away to college at 15, attending Oberlin and U.C. Santa Cruz and eventually graduating from U.C. Berkeley. Settling in the Bay Area, she became a ubiquitous presence on the scene, playing Gypsy swing with the Hot Club of San Francisco, exploring conceptual projects with Ben Goldberg, John Schott and Trevor Dunn and writing unsettling soundscapes for her Giant Trio quintet.

Since moving to Brooklyn in 1999, Scheinman has continued to expand her range of musical connections. Blessed with two weekly gigs, she’s used her Tuesday-night slot at the intimate Brooklyn venue Barbes as a sonic laboratory with revolving cast of players, including her old Bay Area pal guitarist Adam Levy, violinist Charlie Burnham and bassist Greg Cohen. More recently, she’s been holding forth on Wednesdays at the Living Room on the Lower East Side, where she’s been focusing on her singing with a changeable cast that has included Tony Scherr, Jesse Harris, Norah Jones, Andrew Borger and Bill Frisell.

Nothing has raised Scheinman’s profile more than her numerous collaborations with Frisell, who has featured her on his recent Nonesuch albums The Intercontinentals and Unspeakable as well as on Richter 858 (Songlines), his luminous project inspired by the paintings of Gerhard Richter. Frisell recalls the powerful impression Scheinman made the first time they played together, when she sat in with his trio featuring Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen at the Village Vanguard in 2001: “It was one of those things where I didn’t have to say one word. It was like she was just reading my mind. She can be really out front and strong, but she can be really restrained. She’s always coming at the music from the inside out rather than just playing on top of it. She has such a huge range and she challenges me. She grew up playing those old fiddle tunes with her dad, and they’re in her blood, certainly more than mine. There are all these areas where she can really push me a lot.”