Split personality

Jenny Scheinman gets herself together
By JON GARELICK  |  June 2, 2008

INSTRUMENTAL: “My whole life has been unspoken,” says the violinist of her first vocal album.

WFNX Jazz Brunch Top 5
1. Marcin Wasilewski, January [ECM]
2. Esperanza Spalding, Esperanza [Heads Up]
3. John Ellis, Dance like There’s No Tomorrow [Hyena]
4. Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, Forked Tongue [Cuneiform]
5. DJ Logic/Jason Miles, Global Noize [Shanachie]
Jenny Scheinman is such an unassuming, modest musician that it’s easy to underestimate the radicalness of her two new CDs, Jenny Scheinman and Crossing the Field. It’s not simply the proximity of the release dates. (The first disc is out now on Koch, the other is available on vinyl and as a download and will come out on CD sometime in the fall.) It’s not even that the first is a vocal record and the second instrumental. Neither is it the differences in style. The first mixes country, folk, rock, and blues; the latter is an amalgam of jazz improvisation and open-form composition — Ellington’s “Awful Sad” is here, and so are Scheinman’s takes on American hymn tunes, parlor ditties, Kurt Weill, circus music, African guitar pop, and 20th-century classical modernism. That in itself covers a lot of ground. But compare her plainspoken delivery of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Miss Collins” on Jenny Scheinman with the frightening threnody of clashing strings and throbbing drone in her “Einsamaller” from Crossing the Field. This isn’t like Esperanza Spalding going from a free-piano jazz trio to a jazz-pop vocal album, or Herbie Hancock writing a “jazzy” film score. It’s not even the difference between Pat Metheny and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s more like the difference between Maybelle Carter and Alban Berg.

Eclecticism is such a given these days that it’s almost a red flag — another word for dilettante. But Scheinman has come by her eclecticism honestly, and as you cozy up to the two CDs, it’s soon clear that they’re part of the same sensibility — someone enamored of “American music,” whatever that is. The sound of Scheinman’s Americana style is recognizable, but her radicalism has as much to do with audiences, performing traditions, and an attitude toward the marketplace.

Scheinman, who plays the MFA this Saturday night, has been a comer for the past decade or so — mostly as a violinist playing in bands led by Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Bill Frisell, Madeleine Peyroux, and the Brazilian guitarist and singer Vinicius Cantuária. In the meantime, she’s been releasing her own records, exploring her travels in Eastern European folk and klezmer and all manner of Latin-American music. But on 2006’s 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone), she more or less zero’d in on the American-ness of her sound — 12 instrumentals that in some cases seemed to cry out for lyrics.

Now, writing different songs, she’s come up with some. Four of the 11 songs on Jenny Scheinman are originals: stories of an aunt who disappeared (“The Green”), an enigmatic drifter (“Skinny Man”), an isolated country family (“Newspaper Angels”). And there’s the one full-on guitar-rocker, “Come On Down,” an invocation, a plea for love or at least salvation.

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