Taking her bow to a grab bag of styles: Jenny Scheinman

Boston Globe, August 3, 2007

NEW YORK—The jazz violin community is a small one; even its stars, like Regina Carter, Billy Bang, or Mark Feldman, are little known beyond hard-core music circles. But paradoxically, this obscurity has helped to make the violin a vehicle for some of the most interesting new music today.

Perhaps one reason is that it draws artists who enjoy a challenge. But it’s also because jazz violinists bring backgrounds in other genres. Classical, klezmer, country, and folk are just some of the sources that these violinists tap and then reinterpret through the jazz idiom of improvisation.

Jenny Scheinman, who at 34 has been anointed jazz violin’s rising star, is no exception. Her playing sometimes flirts with the angular abstractions of experimental music, but far more often it resonates with the warmth and lyricism of the folk and country music she grew up with in rural Northern California, where her East Coast family rusticated in search of simplicity and community values. She’s classically trained on piano, and she enjoys singing, but in rock and folk, not jazz settings.

Lately, Scheinman has found work as an accompanist to the likes of Lucinda Williams and Norah Jones. At the same time, her jazz work has only deepened: She’s close with Bill Frisell, who appears on her most recent album, 2005’s “12 Songs,” and a new disc she’s recording adds to that lineup the exceptional pianist Jason Moran. On Wednesday, she brings to Regattabar another group altogether, featuring drummer Jim Black, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and Nels Cline, who has recently emerged from the penumbra of the avant-garde into the limelight as the lead guitarist for Wilco.

Over barbecue sandwiches at a cafe in her Brooklyn neighborhood, Scheinman, who is tall and lanky with wavy hair and expressive blue eyes, says she expects this tour to be more freewheeling than her other recent projects. Her partners are old friends with whom she has a trusted chemistry. She has known Cline and Sickafoose since their time together in the 1990s in Bay Area drummer Scott Amendola’s band.

“I’m interested in it as a band without an agenda,” she says. “I often do these projects that have an agenda, getting a specific set of new music written, with specific instrumentation, different players. And this is really about our chemistry rather than about a bunch of new music.”

Like these bandmates, Scheinman is generally considered part of the “creative music” scene – the experimental, intellectual milieu that produces sometimes difficult music that is hard to pin down genre-wise but prizes the possibilities of improvisation. She’s not unhappy with the label, but it still leaves her with mixed feelings.

“I guess I have ended up a little bit associated with the creative music scene, in terms of just desire to experiment and love of vulnerability and risk,” she says. “I hope I’m a creative musician in the sense that I’m not afraid of trying things, but I certainly don’t pride myself on that. And I think most good music is pretty creative whether or not it sounds weird or has any of the cliches of creative music.”

“I don’t think I’m a music elitist,” she says. “I definitely respect people that go as far as they can for the sake of the trip, and for the sake of probing into new areas. Because it helps people so much – working at the fringes, broadening the spectrum is so important. But I have a much simpler approach, and I’m a bit more of a populist.”

Bassist Sickafoose says Scheinman’s open-mindedness stems from her curiosity. “I think she’s really a communicator,” he says. “She’s constantly trying to figure out the brains of the people she’s playing with. She’s kind of wildly intuitive.”

Those instincts don’t stop Scheinman from writing pieces that she admits have a tendency toward minimalism. But it does lead her to make accessible, melodic music that privileges the art of the song. “I’m interested in classic forms, classic structures, stability within song structures,” she says. And when she sings, she diverts completely from the jazz repertoire: “I grew up with country and folk music and rock and that’s what I’m comfortable with.”

Indeed, Scheinman’s upbringing in a tiny Humboldt County coastal town was a highly unusual one for a jazz musician. “Big fault lines, a triple junction of tectonic plates, lots of earthquakes, lots of mudslides, dirt roads,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I was raised by horses as much as by my parents. I rode a horse to school every day, worked herding cattle… Just the rural life.”

Her parents were the town doctors but also music lovers who would gather the family around the campfire for singalongs. “I played along with whatever my dad was singing,” she says. “I didn’t know I was playing jazz.” She soon played solo piano concerts around the county. Her early performance experience even included busking in Europe with her father. “We made a lot of money,” she says with a laugh. “An 8-year-old kid in Switzerland playing fiddle tunes with her dad was a sure win.”

If there’s one trait that has clearly marked Scheinman’s musical career, it’s the fearlessness with which she takes up projects and puts her emotions on the line. Lately, she says, she has been doing this a lot through singing and writing songs that confront some of the more difficult memories of her childhood. She recently sang this material before an audience that included her parents. “That was terrifying,” she says.

Scheinman is working on a vocal album as well as her project with Frisell and Moran, and she says she is near a deal with a record company that will release both records despite the difference in material and style. (She won’t name the label just yet.)

On Wednesday, however, expect Jenny Scheinman the jazz instrumentalist, not the rock singer, to turn up. And, she says, expect to find the group in a liberated mood. “We’re all very excited,” she says. “It’s a reunion, but also a debut because Jim and Nels have never played together, other than once with me. And it’s bringing in the energy that Nels has gathered since traveling with Wilco.”

Scheinman sums up the energy and the creative potential she feels among these musical kindred spirits – in one word that says it all: “Extroversion.”