Something cosmic occurred while violinist Jenny Scheinman and guitarist Bill Frisell were in the studio last June recording Lucinda Williams' new album. While listening to the playback of a song called "Where Is My Love they locked eyes and simultaneously tapped a finger to their foreheads. "It was this mutual experience of hearing a sound we make together, uncompromised, in the context of a great song by somebody that we totally admire. A coming together of big forces across a genre, that was really moving, Scheinman explained.
The pair has built a musical rapport over the last seven years playing in a variety of each others' groups. The first and only time Scheinman played the Village Vanguard was with Frisell. "I had done some weird things that day, she explained. "I got a hair cut next door right before the gig and I was wearing slightly weird things. I was in that space of being a little bit nervy. As we were walking out, the lights dimmed and [proprietress] Lorraine [Gordon] looked down at my shoes and said 'you're not going to wear that are you?' I guess they looked like sneakers to her. I guess she's used to jazz ladies that wear high heels or something.
The violinist's quirky style hasn't deterred artists like Frisellwho has asked Scheinman to play with many of his bands and on the Grammy-winning Unspeakable
(Nonesuch, 2004)who played on her last album 12 Songs
(Cryptogramophone, 2005). "She gets immediately to this place where the music can happen, Frisell says, "the place where all kinds of telepathic stuff starts going on. Nothing needs to be figured out or explained, there's no need to get her attention, she's ready for anything.
Music drenched Scheinman's earliest years. She grew up in the wilds of Northern California playing American folk tunes around the campfire with her family. One of six children in the school her parents formed with others in the area so they wouldn't have to drive two hours to the nearest town, her education included a summer arts camp and travels around the country with a theatre and dance group. She studied at Oberlin Conservatory and the University of California, Berkeley and at age 18 changed her focus from piano to violin because she "felt like more of a gypsy. It's portable. It's more like a voice. It's super flexible in the way it sounds. Also physically it's a different experience, you can really be close to people when you play with them, she explained.
Curious displacements, exposure to assorted lifestyles and constant evaluations of new situations seem to have primed a unique creativity evident in her music. "What strikes me about Jenny is her consistent musicality and her probing quality where she doesn't always just play what she knows. She stays very relaxed in the mist of a maelstrom of sound, says guitarist Nels Cline, with whom she plays in drummer Scott Amendola's band.
12 Songs bursts with beguiling vignettes and whimsical phrases, while the preceding disc Shalagaster (Tzadik, 2004), inspired by the tormented characters in Pedro Almodovar's Talk To Her, bristles with a darker drama. Influenced by movies, she won't say how many times she saw Brokeback Mountain. Though she transposed some of the story's heartbreak into a few tunes on Williams' album, she said it didn't impact the music she wrote last winter in Hawaii.
Set up in her hotel with a computer and violin, she started to think that a wind current had dumped a bunch of melodies onto the shore. "I was hearing them, why were there all of a sudden so many? she wondered. "I just sat on the bed and played tunes as they came into my head, basically one after another. It felt like I couldn't pick them fast enough. 20 tunes resulted which she plans to use on her next album if she can find record label support. What she envisions is a regular sized jazz group joined by an orchestra which acts as one instrument. The key, she said, is the conductor who will lead the orchestra through improvisations with the band.
For now, this month's four-night run at Jazz Standard with pianist Jason Moran and drummer Paul Motian occupy her thoughts. When the club invited her to play, she set out to find a band. She had played with Moran on [bassist]Christian McBride's Live At Tonic and was "bowled over by the pianist.
"I was in the audience and I was hot, feeling oppressed by the crush of the crowd, she recalled. "And Jason Moran played these chords, suddenly I felt like there was fog, a coolness over the crowd and it was so surprising, he was able to totally transform what had been going on, it was like he had cooled the whole thing down and stayed there, committed to it. From the perspective of somebody listening in a hot audience, he came in and thought of the thing that nobody thought of. He came in and drenched us with these billowy chords.
Once Moran agreed to the gig she went searching for a drummer. "I never thought of Paul Motian in the beginning, she said, "because I don't know him very well and somebody doesn't just call up Sonny Rollins and say 'hey let's do a gig!' After some prompting from Frisell she gave the drummer a call and got his answering machine. "I said, [speaks in a meek voice] 'Hi Paul, this is Jenny, I think you just talked to Bill...' and he picked up and said [speaks in a stark, jabbing voice] 'Ok, ok we're on. Yeah, yeah. Four nights at the Jazz Standard. Sounds great. You and me and Jason Moran.' And I said 'uhhh I don't even really know what to say' and he said, 'don't say anything! Just hang up!' Just totally there. Totally down for it.
This gig, she said, will be one of the most challenging things she's ever done. Since Motian doesn't rehearse, the first night will be the first time she plays with him. "I'm scared about everything, she said. "It's a masochistic pattern. I set myself up for these situations that are way over my head, over and over and over. It fills my life with tremendous anxiety and fear but I keep doing it. It's the thrill of learning. And I also I think it might be good. There is something in me that's ready for it.
Though still in her early thirties Scheinman has tremendous experience as a leader and collaborator. Every Tuesday when she's in town, Brooklyn's Barbès fills with an eclectic mix of musicians: One night a crowd of banjo players packed the space and another time the room filled to the brim with violinists, violists, cellists and upright bassistsa group she put together called the Barbès Philharmonic, led in conducted improvisation by Butch Morris.
Last November she ventured to South America with singer Madeleine Peyroux's band and counts the tour as one of the best so far. "Every once in a while there's chemistry in a band like fire and it was just an incredible party the whole time. She was flushed from a tour with Frisell and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz playing John Lennon music. "That ramped me up, she said. "I think it ramped all of us up into some kind of major high because of John Lennon. We ended that tour in London and it felt like a cultural moment, not only of honoring a great musician, but a philosophy that was needed at the time. I just felt really in love with life and the world.
Jenny Scheinman, 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone, 2004)
Scott Amendola Band, Believe (Cryptogramophone, 2005)
Bill Frisell, Richter 858 (Songlines, 2005)
Jenny Scheinman, Shalagaster (Tzadik, 2003)
Jenny Scheinman, The Rabbi's Lover (Tzadik, 2002)
Jenny Scheinman, Live at Yoshi's (Avant, 2000)
Jenny Scheinman: Touching Many Strings (Interview, 2006)
Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet at The Palms Playhouse (Concert Review, 2005)
Top Photo: Andrew Nofsinger
Bottom Photo: Wendy Andringa