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Interviews

Jenny Scheinman: Some Serious Mischief

By Published: February 27, 2012
AAJ: There's a great balance between form and craziness on Mischief and Mayhem. Let's talk a little about the songs. "A Ride with Polly Jean" is a brilliant start to the CD, and it sounds like the soundtrack to a road movie or even a spaghetti western. Which came first: that wonderful, loping rhythm or the melody?

Mischief & Mayhem, from left: Jim Black, Todd Sickafoose Nels Cline, Jenny Scheinman

JS: My songwriting process is a little bit like a dream; I don't remember it very well. It sort of happens, and it almost always all happens together—the melody and the rhythm are linked. It's not like I had the melody in place and then I tried to add the rhythm. Very often I'll come up with something, and I'm shocked at how simple it is. Then I try to fuck with it and try to change stuff and make it fancier, and almost never use any of the other stuff. I think "A Ride with Polly Jean" sat for a day, and I thought: "Is that really a song? Or is it a nursery rhyme, or what? Is there enough there?" I write a lot of music, but most of it doesn't stick in my mind. If it's catchy somehow to me—even if it's not a catchy tune, like "Sand Dipper," which is not something that everyone's going to whistle—but if it's stuck in my mind then I kind of feel compelled to investigate. ...."Polly Jean" was like that; it was this simple little thing, but it's always a revelation to shape something so simple. The band adds all the other stuff.

AAJ: Jim Black hits three bass-drum notes at the beginning of that song which really give lift-off. Was this little touch something composed or was it in-the-moment creativity?

JS: That's a totally in-the-moment thing. The chart has a boo-bap, ba boo-bap boo-bap boo-bap [sings] rhythm, then it has the melody and the chords. There are even a few measures where the chord change is optional, so that going between E and D is slightly blurry, and that's it on that chart. It's likely that you'd read it in some folk songbook. There's form to it, and there are two open spots where we vamp, and then I cue going back to the melody. Other than that, it's very skeletal.

AAJ: There's a strong African feel to a couple of the tracks, like "Sand Dipper." What is Nels Cline playing on that track? It sounds like a kora, at times.

JS: I think he's playing an electric 12-string. I don't know what all those buttons are he presses, but he has quite an array of effects that have memory and that jump octaves and add distortion and delay and things like that.

AAJ: "Blues for Double Vee" has a lovely country- rock-meets-bluegrass feel to it. It sounds like it's a lot of fun to play.

JS The Double Vee is the Village Vanguard, and that's one of the songs I wrote several days before we did that run at the Vanguard. Compositionally, that song is tied to two players who have been part of the history of the Village Vanguard—[drummer] Paul Motian
Paul Motian
Paul Motian
1931 - 2011
drums
, who died recently, and [pianist] Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
, who was one of Paul Motian's biggest heroes. The performance probably wouldn't remind one of either of those players, but the composition is a kind of obsession on a certain intervallic sequence, and it's very melody based, as Thelonious Monk and Paul Motian both were. You could play the melody and not necessarily have a chord player plunking out the chords—they sort of exist within the melody. The composition is sort of inward looking; it's looking in at its own structure, very much the way Monk worked.

The drums have a surf-punk feel, and the violin's tone was—I was really digging in. It's the least beautiful of my tones. It's pretty scrapey and intense. There's a lot of unison in it. Nels and Todd and I, for a lot of it, are playing unison. Nels wrote the bridge. I played that recently with [guitarist] Bill Frisell and [drummer] Brian Blade
Brian Blade
Brian Blade
b.1970
drums
, with whom I spent a week at the Village Vanguard in December, and Brian, a couple of days in, said, "That tune is a kind of a punk tune, isn't it?" So, he started doing that role. It's a little spunky and humorous take on the Vanguard, which hasn't had very much music like that within its very venerable walls.

AAJ: Your violin really flies on that track. What violin or fiddle players most excited you when you first took up the instrument?

JS: I started really young. I played violin and piano, and I could already play them by the time I got interested in jazz and folk and had the idea of being a professional musician. At that point, it seemed like a pretty big hassle to change instruments, so I just ended up on violin. It was somewhat random, as my parents just started me on violin. I was interested in music, but I had never been particularly interested in violin. I've learned a lot from various violin players, and I've definitely gone through love affairs with different players. I love a lot of the American folk players. I loved Vassar Clements, a really great bluegrass player. Now I think Stuart Duncan is one of the better bluegrass players. Of the jazzier players, I love Stuff Smith
Stuff Smith
Stuff Smith
1909 - 1967
violin
and I liked Claude Williams a lot. I put myself through college playing Stephane Grappelli
Stephane Grappelli
Stephane Grappelli
1908 - 1997
violin
kind of stuff. I'm so glad he was born, but I'm not sure it's something I'm striving to imitate at all; he's not really an influence, per se. Joe Venuti
Joe Venuti
Joe Venuti
1903 - 1978
violin
was great. I got to play a lot of Joe Venuti solos in a band in New York when I was doing some old stuff with [multi-instrumentalist/arranger] Vince Giordano
Vince Giordano
Vince Giordano
b.1952
composer/conductor
and the Nighthawks. Ray Nance
Ray Nance
Ray Nance
1913 - 1976
cornet
—I can't name everybody.

But in terms of musical influences, I don't know if any of those would top [saxophonist] Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
or even some guitar players. I went through a phase of transcribing early Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
b.1954
guitar
, and Bill Frisell before I was playing with him. There are just so many jazz players that I listened to a lot, probably a lot more than the fiddle players. I've always loved having the opportunity to play with great classical players. I get hired to do arrangements, so I can hire people. It's always a thrill to be in a setting with great classical players. I also want to mention Charles Burnham, who lives in New York. I think he's brilliant, and he's very under-recorded. He's amazing. And the two players I play with, with Bill Frisell: Eyvind Kang, who's a great violin player but is mostly playing viola these days, and [cellist] Hank Roberts—they are a huge influence on me. I feel super lucky to be able to tour and make records with them.


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