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Jenny Scheinman: Motherhood & Invention

The violinist/composer on the harmony between family and creativity

Jenny Scheinman
Jenny Scheinman and her daughter Rosa
858 Quartet with Jenny Scheinman and Bill Frisell (second from right)
Jenny Scheinman (left) with her Mischief & Mayhem Band

There’s nothing quite like having a kid to make you reflect on where you came from. For Jenny Scheinman, a journey into the past comes with a few complications, both geographic and emotional.

While the violinist moved from the Bay Area to Brooklyn in 1999, becoming an essential and ubiquitous part of the New York City scene through her residency at Barbès and regular gigs at the Village Vanguard, she’s spent most of 2012 in Northern California, where she returned to give birth to her second child. And on a glorious weekend in June, she’s made the 60-mile drive south from Arcata to the homestead in Petrolia, where she spent her youth without electricity or indoor plumbing. The house she grew up in sits high on a remote bluff on Humboldt County’s rugged Lost Coast; it’s a sturdy but rough-hewn structure built on a 240-acre spread dotted by craggy oaks and stately redwoods.

Born in San Francisco, Scheinman wasn’t much older than her 10-day-old daughter Rosa, who nurses cradled in the crook of Scheinman’s left arm, when her parents brought her to this untamed land in the summer of 1974. Gazing at Rosa’s downy head, still flaky from her recent emergence, it’s impossible not to think of the newborn Scheinman arriving in the wilderness, living in a barn raised by her parents and their neighbors, all self-styled exiles in flight from the disillusionment that spread as the 1960s bled into the ’70s. Without the technological amenities we take for granted, family time in the Scheinman home often meant making music, and she learned dozens of old-time fiddle tunes playing with her father, an emergency room physician who also runs a small clinic in Petrolia. As with many other aspects of her childhood, she retains the unshakable, unabashed melodicism of American folk music, whether she’s performing with Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, Nels Cline or Christian McBride.

“I think my parents’ generation moved out here because they thought it was a good place to raise kids,” Scheinman says. “I think it’s a beautiful place, but I’m not moving my kids out here. I don’t think it’s necessarily better than the city. For my parents, I think it was a rejection of what was going on, and I remember feeling kind of isolated by what I thought was a very strange childhood. This is a pretty tight community, so I’m still close with all my old friends here-not that there are that many; there just weren’t many people-and it’s a comfort not to have to explain that I don’t know a reference or a joke because we didn’t have a television.”

Scheinman’s affinity for folk idioms led directly to her expansive collaboration with Frisell, her most consequent and protean musical relationship. Ever since he first invited her to perform at the Vanguard, just weeks after 9/11, she’s been the thread running through a series of singular Frisell ensembles, from the polyglot Intercontinentals and the Gerhard Richter-inspired 858 Quartet to the music of John Lennon and Frisell’s score for the revelatory photos of Arkansan Mike Disfarmer. At the risk of oversimplifying two dauntingly complex artists, there’s a beautiful symmetry to the way that Scheinman and Frisell intersected. The guitarist, who first earned his reputation as a house musician for ECM and a denizen of the Downtown scene, had made his fateful sojourn to Nashville, which sparked his ongoing investigation into American roots music. “He came from the future into the past,” says Scheinman, who was still a new face on the scene trying to make sense of where her rural roots fit into Gotham’s cosmopolitan aesthetic.

“When Bill called me to play the Vanguard for the first time he sent me a stack of music,” she recalls. “It was mostly originals, but then I came to these old fiddle tunes that I knew very well, and Hank Williams tunes that I knew through the jukebox in the bar in Petrolia. I don’t know if I intentionally tried to hide it, but there have definitely been periods of trying to assimilate into the urban, sophisticated New York jazz scene when it didn’t seem appropriate to mine this area, which is why being asked to play ‘Cluck Old Hen’ with Bill at the Vanguard was, like-right! This is someone who listens to music without judgment, who actually hears that this is good stuff and it’s totally valid, valuable music. Hank Williams and Sonny Rollins, they’re right there with each other.”

More than Scheinman’s deep familiarity with old-time tunes, Frisell cottoned to her social approach to music making, which harkens back to the family hearth. Their creative relationship has flourished “musically and spiritually,” Frisell says, because “she’s just so wide open. I didn’t grow up sitting around the campfire playing. She learned in more of a folk, oral-tradition kind of way. She’s completely schooled in a formal way, too, but as a child her experience of music was really hanging out with her father, and it fit perfectly with what I was thinking about. I was learning a lot from her, from the way she would learn a song not from reading the music, but from having someone show it to her, sing it to her. And she already knew the words to a lot of the old tunes.”

Making music can be another way to create a family, an in-group bonded by the kind of shared experiences and unspoken understandings that bind siblings and cousins. If her childhood was isolating, Scheinman has forged connections with an unusually far-flung network of artists, a community that extends well beyond jazz to include alt-country icons and trenchant singer-songwriters such as Rodney Crowell, Bruce Cockburn, Lucinda Williams, Robbie Fulks, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Ani DiFranco.

In many ways the decision to start a family with her partner, graphic artist Andrew Nofsinger, was inextricably linked to the process of writing her own songs, material she introduced on the eponymous 2008 vocal album she released in conjunction with the lush, string-laden instrumental project Crossing the Field (both on Koch). Produced by Tony Scherr, who also contributes guitar, bass, loops and harmony vocals, Scheinman’s self-titled record offered a startling introduction to her voice for those only familiar with her as a player. Anguished on the traditional lament “I Was Young When I Left Home,” ecstatic on her original rave-up “Come on Down” and disquietingly unflappable on “The Green,” her post-mortem of an aunt’s mysterious disappearance, Scheinman’s voice is lambent with a hint of twang, a captivatingly cool vehicle for storytelling that always hints at deeper, darker currents.

As she started to explore the topics she felt drawn to as a songwriter, “It became really clear that I needed to have kids,” she says, noting that her son, Bellamy, was born in 2009. “I wanted to talk about women and what women do in the world, and relationships beyond teenage romances. I’ve never been a very premeditated writer, but once I had written 20 songs with words, I realized what I was passionate writing about had to do with family and kids and love in that context.”

Pregnancy itself served as a potent muse. In her third trimester with Bellamy, Scheinman came down with a fever, and in an effort to lower her temperature without resorting to medication, she took a cold bath and ended up with the lyric for “The Littlest Prisoner.” Written from the point of view of a pregnant incarcerated woman singing to her baby, the song figured prominently in her vocal sets last year. “Songs make you think about life in a different way,” Scheinman says. “And jazz, I don’t know what all that stuff’s about. I do know that after taking care of a kid and dealing with all the intensity of that, to step on the stage and play abstract instrumental music is such a luxury. I felt more passionate about it. Like, I’m here, this is starting, and we’re about to make some beautiful stuff. It didn’t feel like just another gig.”

Her quartet, Mischief & Mayhem, reflects the immediacy and playful exuberance of her post-pregnancy epiphany. More than an alliterative phrase, the band’s moniker is a mission statement, a promise that’s fulfilled whenever the group assembles. She produced and released the outfit’s self-titled album featuring drummer Jim Black, guitarist Nels Cline and bassist Todd Sickafoose, a longtime friend with whom she, Nofsinger and drummer Ches Smith shared a subdivided Carroll Gardens brownstone (Cline and Frisell rented the basement as a crash pad). Opening with the Eastern-tinged psychedelia of “A Ride With Polly Jean,” a tune reminiscent of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You,” the album alternates between moody, chiming soundscapes (“Devil’s Ink” and “July Tenth in Three Four”) and aggressive, predatory grooves that threaten to break apart at the seams (“Blues for the Double Vee,” its title a nod to the Village Vanguard, and “The Mite”).

She first created the group for a 2007 Celebrate Brooklyn concert at Prospect Park, an outdoor setting that draws thousands of people. Knowing that she didn’t want to sing, she recruited players well versed in projecting rockin’ energy out to vast crowds. Part of what makes the band so volatile is that it contains two distinct axes. Black and Sickafoose lock into the grooves, pulling the time back and forth, while Cline and Scheinman surge and recede together, riding the rhythmic churn. After the intense orchestration of Crossing the Field, which featured a string section led by the quartet Brooklyn Rider, she was looking for a loose-limbed setting with musical intimates. “I wanted the thrill and ease of letting go with a small group of close friends,” Scheinman says. “There’s a built-in tension with Jim and Nels in particular, with the part of them that pushes things over the edge. I wouldn’t say I rein it in, but I’m not a big fan of skronk and extended sections of high-intensity noise. I wrote music that would bring out the parts I like, so there’s structure strong enough to hold a melody or an idea. Some pieces have pretty clear Jenny Scheinman song qualities, but open up into this tangle of merging tones and unexpected villas of timbre, which is the fun part, getting to those ecstatic moments.”

The blueprint for Mischief & Mayhem was drawn up in the late 1990s, when Scheinman recorded her first album, Live at Yoshi’s, an auspicious session featuring Sickafoose, drummer Scott Amendola and guitarist Dave Mac Nab. She met Cline around the same time while performing with the quartet in Los Angeles, and really got to know him after he replaced Mac Nab in the Scott Amendola Band, which was also anchored by Sickafoose. Where Mac Nab’s lithe single-note lines provided Scheinman with a finely calibrated melodic cohort, Cline brought his full noisome arsenal into Amendola’s mix. Without plugging in, she devised strategies for joining Cline on his variegated excursions, often blending so closely it was impossible to unravel one voice from the other.

With three-fifths of the same personnel, it’s hardly surprising that Mischief & Mayhem brings the Amendola Band to mind. According to Cline, “The instant orchestration that we developed in Scott’s band is still happening in Mischief & Mayhem, despite the different kind of material. One of the things about Jenny’s playing that makes her unique is that she can be a sonic player, a very free player with great spontaneity. Sometimes she’ll just go for a texture, something pretty extreme. Especially with this band, she definitely gets pretty fierce.”

Mischief & Mayhem is one of the ensembles that has survived her parental culling. After years of saying yes to just about every gig proffered, Scheinman started to prioritize after Bellamy’s birth, focusing on the relationships and projects she finds most promising and rewarding. There’s her trio with Jason Moran and Rudy Royston, which plays the Vanguard at the end of August. (“Jenny brings out my beautiful side,” Moran says.) She’s toured with Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, and there’s a new trio with Frisell and Brian Blade that performs at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall next March. But she’s passed on many offers she would have jumped at previously, even with ample support from her partner. She took Bellamy on tour when he was nursing, depending on relatives and friends for childcare. “Two very generous couples of cousins helped,” she says. “My mom flew up to Canada while I was rehearsing with Bruce Cockburn. Allison Miller’s girlfriend came with us on one tour and watched him when I was onstage and soundchecking. This time around I’m backlining a lot of sitters at Guelph Jazz Fest, Saalfelden and Newport so far. I’ll be out with Rosa for the month of September and I haven’t figured that out yet, but it’s mostly in and around New York, where luckily I know a bunch of great sitters. I’ll hopefully enlist my New York City relatives some too. Logistics-oy vey!”

In an era when many men are heavily involved in the daily chores of childcare, a baby’s arrival is a life-altering event for any player. But the calculus for female artists is complicated indeed, particularly for women jazz musicians. Prime childbearing years coincide with the time when ambitious players are building the essential skills, relationships and connections that sustain a career. Surveying the scene, it’s clear that among jazz’s top 100 or so female instrumentalists, a disproportionate number haven’t had children. Just as with writers, painters and dancers, building a successful career in jazz requires a self-contained discipline that can leave little room for motherhood. Putting aside the financial challenges of raising a family (in New York City, no less), children require an artist’s most precious resource: time. “It takes a lot of time to learn how to play, make records, run your little business,” Scheinman says. “Even if you have a manager and a booking agent in place, it takes a lot of time to run the show. You have to control your time.”

Children, of course, tend to dispel our illusions of control. Scheinman and Nofsinger discussed starting a family for years before Bellamy was born. Just as he got to a place where he felt ready, she would get cold feet, and vice versa. When they finally decided to take the plunge, Scheinman immediately went on tour with Rodney Crowell. “I came back and I said, ‘OK, I changed my mind. That was so much fun I want to be on the road all the time,'” she says. “And I got pregnant that night.”

It turns out that parenthood brought Scheinman home. When she was touring as the opening act for Bruce Cockburn during the summer of 2011, Nofsinger and Bellamy stayed with her father in Petrolia. She made the trek out to the Lost Coast whenever there was a break, and discovered that Humboldt worked as a stimulant on her writing. After years of struggling fruitlessly to compose traditional solo fiddle tunes, Scheinman found that music started to flow once she was back on her native soil. “Then I went back to New York and completely dried up,” she says. “I figured, maybe there are just 10 of them. But when we returned in February they immediately came back. Something about the environment here stirs up my connections to folk music and fiddle music, and there’s been an unanticipated slew of writing that’s happened here.”

Finished with her meal, Rosa lolls contentedly, her eyes half closed in the blissful reverie of the milk-bombed. The irregular pulse of the surf becomes audible as we watch two red-tailed hawks circle lazily over the cliffs. However strange her childhood seemed, Scheinman clearly draws sustenance from this lonely and beautiful place. She’s thinking about recording an album dedicated to the solo fiddle tunes she’s been writing, but then again, you never know where the pieces might pop up.

“There are some tunes on the Mischief & Mayhem record I thought were fiddle tunes at first,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t realize how closely connected different genres are, and they’re really only different because one has electric guitar and extended drum solos, and one has a solo fiddle. A couple of these pieces I can imagine playing with Jason Moran at the Vanguard, and they won’t sound like fiddle tunes.”

Originally Published