Jenny Scheinman Quartet
Friday, August 31
Better than: Music that keeps you at a distance.
During her early set at the Village Vanguard on Friday, violinist Jenny Scheinman pulled out just one cover, Duke Ellington’s “Awful Sad.” It’s not hard to see why she’s fond of that particular piece; like Scheinman’s music in general, “Sad” mixes melancholy with hope and playfulness, never painting things as bleak but hardly taking the position that life is one big ray of sunshine. And so it was this middle ground between dark and light that served as Scheinman’s home base for the set. It was a truthful place to be.
To be fair, though, Scheinman is likely enamored with “Sad” for another reason, too: it has a memorable, straightforward melody. Unlike many on the jazz landscape today, Scheinman keeps it simple, writing earthy, folky lines that beckon and envelop. Even at its most technical, her music is never a spectacle to be witnessed; it’s something to be shared, and passed around.
An entirely acoustic affair—Scheinman regularly tangles with electric troublemakers like Bill Frisell and Nels Cline—the leader was backed on this weeklong engagement by the same sensitive players that accompanied her on her first Vanguard run as a leader in 2008: pianist Jason Moran, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Rudy Royston. Like her partiality to “Awful Sad,” her attraction to these musicians makes sense. For each of them, the song, not the player, is central. When it’s time to step out, they can do that, but they seem to live by the idea that individual solos have little to do with how engaging a set of music is, or how good a band sounds. Cohen sussed this out by bass-ing with everyone from Tom Waits to John Zorn; Royston gathered this knowledge by percussing for tuneful jazzers like Ben Allison and Frisell. And Moran and Scheinman worked on it together—the pianist appears on Scheinman’s Crossing the Field, the 2008 album from which most of Friday’s early set was drawn.
Opening with the frantic “I Heart Eye Patch,” the group’s rapport was evident from moment one. Moran’s improvisation on that piece began as a low, thoughtful rumble, but mutated into something more down-home and barrelhouse, eventually inciting a classic-rock rave-up of sorts. The sweeping, majestic “Born Into This” benefited from the leader’s sad, sighing slides and Royston’s subtle hip-hop shadings before ending on a passage in which there were no accompanists and no soloists, each musician adopting and then elaborating on small cues and ideas they were hearing from the others. The uptempo funk piece “Hard Sole Shoe” opened with rambling, writhing solo piano, and saw Scheinman improvising with simple riffs, deep-digging tremolos, and big legato leads. And the brooding “Einsamaller” placed fluttering cymbals and deep arco bass underneath the leader’s disquieting melodies; Moran matched the written parts, tiptoed in the upper register, or riffed mysteriously in the middle range.
Scheinman brought a sense of warmth to the set not just through her songs, but with brief stories in between tunes. “Eye Patch,” she mused, must have been inspired by her first New York gig, an eight-month stint with the Big Apple Circus band. She first fell in love with “Awful Sad” while working in a big band that made her sit the song out, as the original 1928 recording has no violin on it. And she described another song as a puzzle, noting that the compositional process could be looked at as a form of problem solving. On this night, though, there was little to figure out. The depth and heart in the music was self-explanatory.
Critical bias: I’m a sucker for funky, singable bass lines like the one from “Hard Sole Shoe.”
Overheard: Obnoxious audience member: “Can we scream out requests?” Scheinman: “You can scream!”
Random notebook dump: The West Village was bursting with good music on this night: Scheinman at the Vanguard; Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens at Fat Cat; Kenny Werner at the Blue Note; Todd Sickafoose at the 55 Bar. A younger me would’ve dropped in on several of these performances; current Brad knows it’s best to just choose one and really drink it in.