Border crossings

Jenny Scheinman’s gypsy jazz
By JON GARELICK  |  August 9, 2006

ABANDONED: “Bad training” probably helped Scheinman become an adept composer and improviser in multiple genres.
Violinist Jenny Scheinman, who plays the JVC Newport Jazz Festival this Saturday, has worked with so many people in so many different contexts that despite her four solo albums, it’s tough to pin down her musical identity. At heart she’s a jazz improviser and composer. But like Bill Frisell, with whom she often collaborates, she has a pan-stylistic facility that defies category. Besides Frisell, she’s toured or recorded with Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, and Brazilian singer Vinícius Cantuária; most recently she finished studio work on a Lucinda Williams album. Her own albums have leaned toward klezmer and various world folk musics, but she also has a streak of Frisell-like jazz-folk-Americana. Spending about a half-hour on the phone with her, I learn a few things for sure: she’s 33 years old, lives in Brooklyn, and in interviews occasionally likes to say “fuck.”

When I quote to her from an on-line review that one of her pieces sounds “equally Polish, Spanish, and Italian,” she says, “I always find that kind of description distressing. I understand how people hear it that way, but it’s not intentional. If you’re a saxophone player, the gigs you get are generally jazz. As a violin player, I’ve learned — just to make a living — klezmer and all this other kind of stuff, and I’m not an expert in any of it, really. It’s a sort of total gypsy existence of crossing borders constantly and learning a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and I’m sure that comes out in the music. But there was a certain point where I stopped having to take every single gig, and I tried to get away from learning so much in crash courses in different kinds of folk music.”

That said, “a little bit of this and a little bit of that” (geez, echo of Fiddler on the Roof?) has found its way into all of her albums. The 2002 The Rabbi’s Lover was commissioned by John Zorn for the “Radical Jewish Culture” series of his Tzadik label, intended, she says on her Web site, “to express something Jewish either about me, or music, or something.” (Her non-Jewish grandfather, Telford Taylor, was lead prosecutor in the Nürnburg trials.) Her most recent album, though, last year’s 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone), most consistently delves into “the music that I come from, which is basically American music.” She says she’s fully aware that “there’s all these different types of American music and it’s an immigrant land. But it is different from learning Swiss music or all these things I’ve learned. I don’t intend to mix things. If it happens, it’s just from what I’ve absorbed unintentionally. I don’t have any agenda of creating some kind of new world music.”

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