Jenny Scheinman: Avant-fiddle and old-fashioned voice
Aspen Times Weekly
ASPEN ” Petrolia, Calif., is the westernmost town in the continental U.S., and lies along the biggest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the Lower 48. An outpost of the notorious Humboldt County, Petrolia was once, as the name suggests, an oil town, as well as a settlement for miners, loggers and fishermen. But when those resources began to dry up, it became what Petrolia native Jenny Scheinman calls “a pot town,” with a population of some 300 “back-to-the-lander hippie people who moved there in the ’70s.” Scheinman, who happened to grow up in the westernmost house in Petrolia, which for much of her childhood was without electricity, says her hometown is about an hour’s drive from the nearest town.
You can imagine the kind of music that gets made in this area: unplugged, Western, old-fashioned. And so it was for Scheinman, who learned to play fiddle and sing harmony to accompany her father, Dick, an amateur folk singer.
“It was a tiny little homestead town thing, with an out-of-tune guitar, my dad singing,” said the 35-year-old Scheinman. “That’s where music started for me.”
In addition to the fiddle music she played with her dad, Scheinman took lessons in classical violin and piano in Arcata, some 25 rough miles away, and attended fiddle festivals. But perhaps the big turn in the musical road came with the advent of electricity for the Scheinman family, when suddenly Jenny could listen to the jazz records her father had hauled with him from New York.
“It was fascinating, the way it works,” said Scheinman, “the risks you take when you improvise, the vulnerability of making music starting from the scrap of a tune. I was attracted to the risk.” Jazz became even more appealing when two new jazz-loving kids from San Francisco arrived at Petrolia’s six-student high school. In fact, those two kids had been “imported” by Scheinman’s parents, to broaden their daughter’s experience.
After studying violin at Oberlin Conservatory, Scheinman decided her heart was with jazz. With few solid musical prospects ” but a rent-free apartment in Chinatown ” she moved to New York City in 1999 with hopes of tracking down her heroes, avant-jazz, downtown players like the guitarists Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell. “It was just to be there, and listen to people,” she said of her minimalist plans, speaking from her current home in Brooklyn.
Quickly enough, though, Scheinman became the go-to violinist among a crowd of highly regarded experimental musicians. She played on a series of Frisell’s albums that mixed folk and funk into jazz, and was part of Frisell’s band for a ’00 run at the Village Vanguard. She also played on albums by saxophonist/composer John Zorn, drummer Scott Amendola and guitarist/bassist Tony Scherr, all central figures in the latest iteration of forward-looking improvised music. She toured with Madeleine Peyroux, a vocalist whose old-school style draws inevitable comparisons to Billie Holiday. Scheinman released a series of her own CDs; “12 Songs,” from 2005, was picked among the year’s best by The New York Times.
Scheinman’s latest album “Crossing the Fields,” released last month, reflects this world she entered. The album features Frisell and his frequent sideman, drummer Kenny Wolleson, Denver trumpeter Ron Miles and top pianist Jason Moran, as well as a string orchestra.
Just as she was establishing herself in New York’s improvised-music world, Scheinman’s creative attention began to wander. She landed a weekly gig, first in a tiny bar in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, and then at Barbes, a better-known spot in the Park Slope area. The gig was hers to do as she pleased, and eventually she began re-examining the fiddle tunes she had learned in Petrolia, and unleashing the singing voice she had stopped using a decade earlier.
“I didn’t think of myself as a singer because my dad was the singer. He was the big fish,” said Scheinman, who performs Sunday, Nov. 16 at Belly Up Aspen ” first as the opening act, in a duo with guitarist Jedd Hughes, and then as a member of singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell’s acoustic trio, also with Hughes. “But I started singing and got a good response. It was hard not to notice that people were responding. Actually crying. I noticed that the lyric can have such a strong impact. I could communicate very effectively and clearly.”
And Scheinman certainly couldn’t ignore the reaction of another jazz musician who added singing to her repertoire: Norah Jones. Jones joined the parade of musicians ” including Frisell, Bruce Cockburn, and banjoist Danny Barnes ” who came to Barbes and heard Scheinman play. And sing. Jones witnessed Scheinman’s take on the Platters’ “Twilight Time,” and encouraged her to sing more.
“I resisted,” said Scheinman. “I was already so eclectic.”
Eventually, however, Scheinman started inviting song-oriented musicians like guitarist Adam Levy and bassist-songwriter Lee Alexander to Barbes. “We considered ourselves instrumentalists, people who played jazz, took solos,” she said. “But Norah, she came to all my gigs, and that opened up the idea of playing songs with a more rootsy feel. But we had so much more color because we were so interested in harmony, things like that. It was a combination of raw, rootsy music and something more sophisticated.”
Scheinman says, good naturedly, that Jones swiped her band. But that theft was easily forgiven; when Jones invited Scheinman to join her Handsome Band for a summer’s worth of gigs at the Living Room, in Manhattan, Scheinman seized the opportunity to brush up on her songs and singing.
“It was a chance to put my ass out there again, take a risk,” she said. “I hadn’t had stage fright in years, but going up to the mike, I was scared. So it worked.”
In May, Scheinman made her recorded singing debut on her self-titled CD. The songs are a mix ” Mississippi John Hurt’s folk gem “Miss Collins,” Bob Dylan’s arrangement of the traditional “I Was Young When I Left Home,” and Lucinda Williams’ “King of Hearts,” plus several originals ” while the style hearkens back to her fiddling days in marijuana country.
“It came from where I grew up,” said Scheinman of the album. “That’s returning to stuff I did when I was pretty young.”
But Scheinman calls the self-titled CD “an interesting companion piece” to the instrumental “Crossing the Field,” and notes that the two recordings use the same core group of musicians. And she sees an essential similarity between them.
“They sound like the same aesthetic to me. They’re kind of bare,” she said. “I don’t like to cover things up much. It took me a while to realize that’s what I like about [my singing] ” that it’s frighteningly exposed. It sounds like me. I like the way people sound, they way they put themselves into their sound, not cover themselves up.”
Now Scheinman is exposing herself in a vast range of projects. She played on Lucinda Williams’ critically acclaimed 2007 CD “West.” Recently, she played her own run at the Village Vanguard; her combo featured Jason Moran on piano. She is already looking forward to her next vocal CD, one that might feature all original material. For the past several months she has toured with Rodney Crowell. In Crowell’s trio, she plays fiddle and sings her song, “Just a Child,” which was inspired by a dream she had about Crowell. In the opening set, she sings, plays fiddle, and even pulls out a bit of mandolin.
Scheinman and Crowell share a manager, who persuaded the latter to visit Brooklyn and take in Scheinman’s performance. Crowell was impressed enough to alter his usual course; for the last few months, he has been touring in a trio that spotlights Scheinman.
“Her sensibility just resonated right with me,” said Crowell, whose current style falls toward the alt- edge of country music. “She’s a great musician, and has that plaintive Maybelle Carter voice. It’s a real interesting combination in that girl.”
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