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Jenny Scheinman: Some Serious Mischief

By Published: February 27, 2012
AAJ: Another knockout track on Mischief and Mayhem is "Ali Farka Touché," which is reminiscent, in spirit, not only of the great Malian guitarist/singer Ali Farka Toure
Ali Farka Toure
Ali Farka Toure
1939 - 2006
but also of the Intercontinentals. That was a band which seemed to have too short a life, don't you think?

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

JS: That was my time as an adult, playing with the African musicians in that band. We actually had a life a little bit beyond that; the band changed, and I toured quite a lot with Bill Frisell, [percussionist] Sidiki Camara and [guitarist] Djelimandy Tounkara—who was not in the Intercontinentals—two really great West African musicians. The Intercontinentals was a great experiment, and a lot of great connections came from it. I really like the album. I especially like the track "Baba Drame," which was the biggest influence on my writing from the material from that band. I have several songs like that. If you check out the [YouTube] clip of "Jara Bi"—a tune which I wrote, which actually ended up on my last record— there's a great clip with Djelimandy Tounkara and Sidiki Camara, myself, Bill Frisell and [pedal steel guitarist/mandolinist/bassist] Greg Leisz, at the Barbican Theater in London, and that would answer your question better than my rambling.

AAJ: Thanks for the tip. You've talked about Frisell, and his influence is fairly well known, but you've also colored his music a lot for more than a decade now. You both seem to have a lot in common musically, wouldn't you say?

AAJ: We've already talked about one of these similarities in relation to Mischief and Mayhem—though through a slightly different lens with Bill Frisell—and that is this joint attraction to song and this sort of resistance to being controlled. Bill is obsessed with early American folk and country music and things that have a real power in a simple structure. And then he loves to blow the lid off things. He's not particularly fussy about genre, and he can exist in different types of music fairly seamlessly and selflessly. He always has this distinct sound which is him, but he's not uncomfortable going between and crossing over boundaries. I guess I could probably say the same about myself. It has to do with my interest in a lot of different areas but also my funky path through music which has led me, somewhat by necessity, to learn a lot about a lot of different types of music. I'm interested in the portable nature and history of the violin, popping up all over the world and all over the rural parts of this country.

So that's one thing that ties us together: an interest in a wide spectrum of music. And, I guess, there's a language that has developed between us—and among a group of players that has surrounded Bill, and with whom I also play a lot—that is interactive and resistant to a standard jazz format of peer-based music where there's a rhythm section and then there's a soloist blowing over it. It's much more about humble playing, and it's much more about resisting the self, the egotistical approach to jazz—finding something in the combination of the players that really lifts the music off, rather than just the burning cock of a great tenor, or whatever [laughs].

AAJ: Another project that you did with Frisell was the tribute to the music of John Lennon and the Beatles, All We Are Saying (Savoy Jazz, 2011). What was it like touring that music?

JS: We toured that mostly as a trio without the rhythm section, and we did that in Europe a bunch of years ago, maybe five years ago. That was very difficult at first. I have to say that a lot of Bill's projects, for me, and I think also for Bill, can go through really difficult times, and one of the things that I really admire about him is that he doesn't back down when things are not working or they're really uncomfortable. Usually, that's a sign to him that there's something there to discover.

That music was one of the biggest influences on me, as it is for almost everybody, I think—the Beatles and John Lennon. My dad was a Beatles-head, and my first performance ever was when I was four or five years old, singing "Do you want to know a Secret?" with my dad, and other Beatles tunes. Their voices are in my head, so to be put in the position of having to play that music and those lyrics on violin was potentially very embarrassing. It's hard. It's hard to play something that people know really well, without the words, on what seems like a weak little instrument like violin. Not that I can think of any other instrument to do it better, necessarily, but it's been done so much. It was hard not to feel the shadow of all the music that you hear in shopping centers and hotel lobbies—you know, "Imagine," played horribly on some synthesizer or soprano saxophone.

So we had to kind of get through that crust. Of course, the songs are amazing. It's really, really great music. So, once we got through that, it started being more and more intriguing and really fun to plumb the depths of something that we thought we knew really well, and get a new perspective on it. After getting the language together as a trio, it was really fun to add bass and drums because it sort of brought the audience in more and made it more popular in exactly the right way—accessible, joyous and unselfconscious—just great fun.

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Download jazz mp3 “Ali Farka Touche” by Jenny Scheinman Download jazz mp3 “Song of the Open Road” by Jenny Scheinman