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Jenny Scheinman: Shalagaster

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Born into a family of ex-New York City hippies, violinist Jenny Scheinman grew up playing violin and piano in rural Northern California. After studying at Oberlin and UC Santa Cruz and spending some time in the Bay Area scene, Scheinman fulfilled her genetic destiny and found her way back to Gotham. Scads of people have surely heard Scheinman’s contributions to Norah Jones’ recordings. She’s also turned up in bands led by Scott Amendola, Vinicius Cantuaria and Bill Frisell. It’s the exposure to the Frisell, however, that seems to have left the deepest influence on Scheinman.

The violinist’s second Tzadik release, Shalagaster, is a lush, simply constructed and beautifully performed set of songs that entirely favor her patient, shining melodies. Improvisation has a place here, but it only happens in and around the themes, played convincingly by Scheinman and trumpeter Russ Johnson. Like Frisell, Scheinman borrows from a wide range of musical idioms-in this case, tangos, country, European folk, blues, R&B-but manages to create something that frequently sounds like nothing but itself. She also shares Frisell’s interest in quirky, slowly unfolding melodies, though she uses much more conventional song structures. “New View of the Horse” features a menacing secondary theme of descending half notes that sounds like something Frisell himself might have written. The brainy, expansive Americana of “American Dipper,” which comes in two versions here, recalls the music of sometime Frisell collaborator Wayne Horvitz.

Bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Wollesen, who, like Johnson, played on Scheinman’s previous recording, return for Shalagaster. The two are old hands at music like this, and they perform admirably. Free/postbop pianist Myra Melford is the new recruit to the group, but aside from the occasional slightly worried chord, she plays a disappointingly straight and rather anonymous role. Melford dutifully delivers the arpeggios and short solos that Scheinman’s music calls for, and certainly a typical Myra Melford performance would have made Shalagaster a very different recording, but why recruit a player of her caliber to do what any number of pianists could have?