Jenny Scheinman’s String Theories


On stage at Le Poisson Rouge during 2012’s New York Winter Jazzfest while visibly pregnant and wearing a billowy black top with a delicately ruffled skirt, Jenny Scheinman stood at the center of a melee. Surrounded by her feverishly talented bandmates in Mischief and Mayhem, she commanded her violin and played loud, foreboding, skronky, and downright aggressive music.

Scheinman is known for languid sentimental jaunts and delicate phrasing, tender storytelling and weeping instrumental emotionality, so the fierceness in her playing that night seemed even more striking. She and guitarist Nels Cline jaggedly navigated through avalanches of high-pitched squalor, indulging their shared love of melody in between outbursts.

Afterward, Mischief and Mayhem’s performance seemed to sit in the minds of many as the definitive set of the festival, despite being more categorized by no-wave bravado, serialism, and circuitous rhythms than by its bop or swing. Scheinman understands audiences, though, and she gets that their intrinsic desires aren’t far off from performers’. “You [and your audience] all want to get high together and kind of lose yourself by pushing the limits a little bit,” Scheinman explains. That evening, the whole club soared like a kite.

Scheinman has become one of New York’s most dynamic players and sought-after string arrangers since moving to New York in 1999. Almost immediately upon arrival, she got session work thanks to her burgeoning friendship with guitarist Bill Frisell. She eventually became a mainstay in Frisell’s own band, but before that, their musical chemistry was ruggedly tested. During the recording of Argentinean singer Gabriela’s 1999 album Viento Rojo, the two fell seriously ill—although the misery of sickness cleared the normal psychological encumbrances of recording. “We would go off into another world and then stand up and play,” Scheinman recalls. “We came out of it really bonded.”

Frisell led her to a steady stream of collaborations with some of modern jazz’s most vital creative figures, from John Zorn to Paul Motian, Jason Moran to Myra Melford. But despite her accolades and résumé, Scheinman isn’t ready to pigeonhole herself into one style. “I’m considered by some to be a jazz musician, and to some, I’m really peripheral to the mainstream jazz scene,” Scheinman says without lament. “As much as I respect my elders . . . I don’t think it works to try and fit into some old mold of what jazz is,” she says. “At least, it doesn’t for me.”

Her resistance to categorization is apparent over her five solo albums, in which Scheinman has dabbled and subsequently flourished in sizzling live improv, klezmer, and melancholy chamber Americana. She has performed uplifting pastoral suites played by a 40-piece orchestra, and she has let her vocals take center stage. She has recorded and performed with the likes of Norah Jones, Ani DiFranco, and Lucinda Williams and honed her compositional and leadership abilities during weekly gigs at Barbes in Park Slope that were like one long “fertile casting workshop.”

Scheinman grew up in the self-sustaining Humboldt County community Petrolia, which is located in one of the country’s largest wilderness areas. Her folk-musician parents were transplants from New York, “kind of straight hippies” who built everything they used (often poorly) and, like many other local residents, went without electricity. They also passed down their musical knowledge; Scheinman learned her first songs on piano and violin from her parents’ performances and record collection. She also found inspiration in the dusty country bar jukeboxes filled with 1950s Opry tunes.

The drama of that landscape stuck with Scheinman after she moved to the Bay Area at 16. In Oakland, she busked on the street and subtly mastered how to please a crowd. She professes to have learned the art of improvisation at an Italian restaurant while working as a strolling violinist. Customers would ask to hear bagatelles and tarantellas, and Scheinman would smile and make up something on the spot—and the end result was close enough to garner a tip. “I was fearless about faking it,” Scheinman says, laughing.

Even if her skills have solidified, her boldness hasn’t let up. On a tour last summer accompanying Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, Scheinman opened up each show with a solo set. The idea of playing to sold-out crowds throughout Canada made Scheinman “frightened, for months and months, sick to my stomach, scared of playing solo,” she says.

Scheinman more than survived, pushing herself and even Cockburn, who routinely sat in on the occasional Scheinman number, forward. “The exciting thing for me was to be stretching and having to learn how to accommodate myself to her music.” Cockburn says.

Mischief and Mayhem—Scheinman’s quartet with Cline, the thunderous yet inquisitive drummer Tim Black, and the workhorse bassist Todd Sickafoose—releases its first, self-titled album this week. The group first emerged for a one-off concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell in 2007. Scheinman set up a show for the band right before giving birth to her first child in 2009, and in July 2010, the quartet steamrolled through a six-day, 12-set stint at the Village Vanguard with only one rehearsal. (Scheinman had written the music days before.) The band gelled so impressively, Scheinman booked a two-day recording session following the residency.

At the outset of those sessions, though, the violinist felt tired and pensive, as if she had lost some of the critical essence of the group’s recently completed Vanguard gigs. Her bandmates were fatigued as well. Eventually, her husband and son arrived during a break; a toy piano came out, vegetables were eaten, and the humor, earnestness, and drive that she normally owned emerged. The rest of the players seemed to follow suit. Scheinman’s piercing scowl while playing was larger than life, her energy bounding outside of the tiny isolation booth. Even when a take sounded great, she insisted on getting it down unquestionably perfect. Her musicians did not question. By the end of the day, she danced gleefully, whipping out imaginary interpretive dance moves while admiring the progress of the session’s rough mixes.

Her leadership and drive makes apparent why other artists have sought her guidance while putting together their own creations. She was tasked to do that on the recent calamity that was Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu. She recalls, in a characteristically supportive tone, that she was “basically trying to make it sound better.”

Hoping that as she searches for her own inspiration they might discover something untapped within their own creativity, musicians come to her and hold on. “I listen to what Jenny says when she voices her aims,” Cline says. “And I feel a certain joy in the music and improvisation Jenny’s music and playing facilitate.”

That joy—and the impulse to share it—springs naturally from Scheinman. “I get the music in my head, and I can’t get it out unless I do something about it,” she says.