Jenny Scheinman: Some Serious Mischief

Ian Patterson By

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It's often the case that the most interesting music is made by musicians with a broad musical palette and openness to new paths and horizons. Violinist/composer Jenny Scheinman certainly qualifies in both regards. Equally at home playing folk tunes or working in essentially modern jazz setups, Scheinman also jumps at the chance to play with classical musicians, and is increasingly in demand as an arranger for a diverse range of musicians, such as Lou Reed and Metallica, Lucinda Williams, Bono, Sean Lennon, and Jesse Cutler.

A tremendous improviser, Scheinman is perhaps best known for her collaborations with guitarist Bill Frisell over the last decade, and while it is fair to say that Frisell's influence on Scheinman has been significant, her emotive, lyrical playing has also left an indelible mark on over half a dozen of Frisell's CDs and countless concerts. Like Frisell, Scheinman is not given to exhibitionism, and is instead keenly focused on creating power and beauty through collaboration. With Scheinman, as with Frisell, the song is the thing.

Since her debut recording, Live at Yoshi's (Avant, 2000), Scheinman has written plenty of captivating compositions of her own, making the leap into singer/songwriter territory on Jenny Scheinman (KOCH Records, 2008) while also working on the ambitious and compelling 13-part suite Crossing the Field (KOCH International Jazz, 2008), featuring a string orchestra. Scheinman doesn't do comfort zones, and talks of seeking "the thrill of jumping off the cliff every night." One such cliff from which Scheinman has leaped into the unknown came on a 50-date, 2011 tour with Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, when she opened the shows with a solo set, without loops, recorded tracks or gimmickry. It's another example of Scheinman's insatiable curiosity and of her fearlessness as a creative performer.

Scheinman's sixth recording as a leader, the wonderfully titled Mischief and Mayhem (Self Released, 2012) sees her at the helm of an exciting band, which features guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Jim Black, and which takes its inspiration from rock, West African music and surf punk, as much as from jazz. There's a tremendous energy and spark about the music, which will once again alter some people's perceptions about the ever-versatile Scheinman— and she probably wouldn't have it any other way.

All About Jazz Your CD Mischief and Mayhem is a great recording. You must be pleased with the way it's turned out, no?

Jenny Scheinman Yeah, I am, definitely. I love the band, and it was a great process to make it. It was fun to make something a little bit out of control. This one was full of surprises the whole way.

AAJ: It certainly has a different feel from your other solo albums. Mischief and Mayhem is a very appropriate name, but there's a lot of subtlety in the music as well, particularly in Nels Cline's guitar playing. Could you talk a little about Cline's contribution to this CD, and your musical relationship with him?

JS: I've known him for a long time. I first met him in 1998, I think, and we toured a lot together with Scott Amendola, a drummer from the West Coast. The three of us, and Todd [Sickafoose], the bassist, are all from the West Coast, and we were in the band together. We got to know each other very well on that. We set up facing each other as we did on Mischief and Mayhem, and over the years we've developed a language of egging each other on and combining sounds to make swirly textures. There are a lot of unison gestures combined with back-and-forth sparring and dodge ball.

Nels is a very sentimental player, I think, and that, combined with the thrill-seeking in him, is really exciting to be around. He's full of heart and love, to be moved and to move people. He seems to pass the standard expectation of what is sentimental and goes into a kind of mystical zone, especially with the looping and extended technique; I don't know anyone better at that stuff, in terms of having a huge vocabulary of sounds that he can weave into a solo. He loves language and has a very big vocabulary. His solos are much like his talking—he'll take you somewhere.

AAJ: The band on Mischief and Mayhem sounds very tight. Part of that is surely because you've known and played with each other for so long, but had you played this music much live before going into the studio?

JS: We got together in 2007, and we've done at least one tour every year, not really long tours compared to a rock band, but we've also played these wonderful weeks at the Village Vanguard, which are 12-set runs [over six nights]. You get to play 12 one-and-a-half-hour sets in a row. It's a really beautiful sonic and acoustical environment. It's an exciting place to have a powerful band because it's pretty small for a venue. I think it fits 180 or something, really crammed in there. You feel like you're really about to pop the roof off when you get loud. It never really hurts either, so it's a brilliant room. We had just done that for 12 sets in a row, and then we went into the studio, so all the material on the record we had just played.

A lot of the music was new, and I wrote it for that week at the Village Vanguard. I wrote it pretty quickly in three days before the Village Vanguard sets. A lot of those tunes we hadn't toured a lot, but we have a way of playing together as a band, and we have the advantage of 12 hour-and-a-half rehearsals, if I can put it that way, with the addition of a packed, excited audience. We had a head of steam, going into the recording.

It's like a little rock band, and in order for it to feel like it's losing control at moments it really has to have something in it that is focused. That's the tension I like in the band. If everything is wild and chaotic then, to my ear, it often ends up sounding fatiguing and not exciting. A lot of the songs have pretty simple, clear structures, and then we pump the edges of them a bit. It's part of the idea of the band, and it's also part of the nature of the players. Everybody in the band—[drummer] Jim Black maybe slightly less—has played a lot of songs. We haven't had a life completely dedicated to experimental, improvised music. I've played with Lucinda Williams, and of course I sing as well. And Nels has done all this stuff with Wilco, and Todd was with [singer/guitarist] Ani DiFranco. Todd is always doing stuff with singers, producing records and so on, so we're drawn to song form. But we also like to kind of go crazy.

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, who died recently, and [pianist] Thelonious Monk, 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, 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.
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