Split personality

By JON GARELICK  |  June 2, 2008

But it’s the opener, the Bob Dylan arrangement of the traditional “I Was Young When I Left Home,” that sets the table: Scheinman’s affectless vocals, a character who could easily be a young man as a young woman, Tony Scher’s slide guitar, Tim Luntzel’s bass, all spare, with Scheinman’s voice up front and untreated, her fiddle country-raw. That directness, the fully imagined unity of the arrangement, carries her through the whole CD and its apt choice of covers — in addition to “Miss Collins,” there’s Lucinda Williams’s “King of Hearts,” Jimmy Reed’s “Shame Shame Shame,” the Platters’ “Twilight Time,” Tom Waits’s “Johnsburg, Illinois,” and fellow Brooklynite Rebecca Fanya’s “Rebecca’s Song.”

Recorded in Scher’s Brooklyn apartment, Jenny Scheinman leans heavily on his guitar, with Frisell, Luntzel, and drummers Kenny Wollesen and Steve Jordan. And it’s as much a guitar record as a Scheinman vocal record. Crossing the Field, on the other hand, entailed a full string section, with solo settings for Frisell, pianist Jason Moran, and cornettist Ron Miles as well as Scheinman’s violin. There’s little here as simple as a 32-bar pop song form or a 12-bar blues. Even “Hard Sole Shoe,” which sets up a funky blues vamp for a Moran piano solo, spins off into call-and-response patterns for the string section, a passage of extended piano solos alongside a long string melody, a Scheinman solo, and then a mysterious extended string crescendo/decrescendo and fade-out with Doug Wieselman’s clarinet over bass, lightly strummed guitar, and a powdery dusting of effects. Throughout the CDs, Scheinman’s own playing defers multi-note pyrotechnics in favor of her warm tone, conversational phrasing, and rhythmic incisiveness. When her fiddle picks up the melody in “I Was Young When I Left Home,” it’s another voice, in conversation with itself.

“If I don’t want to be what people call ‘eclectic,’ ” she says when I reach her over the phone at her home in Brooklyn, “I would really have to rein myself in. Because I’m certainly not trying to be. It just happens. And it may be just the plague or the benefit of my generation — just listening from such an early age to so many different kinds of music and then taking a kind of intuitive approach to composition.”

Scheinman grew up in Petrolia, Northern California, in what she describes on her Web site as “the western-most house in the continental United States,” in a community she calls “the ocean end of a river valley . . . home to a mix of old ranchers and transplanted East Coast back-to-the-landers.” Her parents were folk musicians, so there were music lessons early on. Even now, she says, when she thinks of “Twilight Time,” she’s more likely to think of her father singing it than the Platters, “even though the Platters were much better singers than my father.” By 14 she was studying jazz piano and theory. There was study at Oberlin Conservatory, an honors degree in English from UC-Berkeley, gigs around the Bay Area playing the fiddle-swing repertoire (Django Reinhardt/Stéphane Grappelli pieces, Stuff Smith), and then gigs with the avant-garde scene centered on the ROVA string-quartet crowd (“these sort of Bay Area thinker people,” says Scheinman with a laugh).

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