When Jenny Scheinman plays—whether with any of her A-list collaborators, but most often with her own, variable groups—her eyes flicker, close, narrow, widen, and radiate in line with whatever musical expression she’s drawn from her celestial violin talents, and she’s in a trance.
As I granted her the entirety of my attention and surrendered all of my will to her extraordinary technical ability and rich compositions—such is the MO when Scheinman’s really on—I remembered an interview I’d done with bassist Christian McBride around the time of his 2006 triple-disc document Live At Tonic, on which Scheinman was among the personnel. Discussing the gallery of guest stars that had helped make those Tonic shows such amazing head-trips, McBride recalled that it “may have been the first time I’d ever met her” and “what a… what a musician. Wow.” I knew the feeling.
A warm delivery and agreeable candor is what Scheinman brings, and a stunning intensity is what she leaves—and that’s true whether she’s playing a lively country rocker, a melancholy ballad or an improv-heavy, fringe experiment. Calling her one of the best and most exciting jazz musicians to emerge during the past decade is rote by now, and also only partially accurate, seeing as her accolades come from far and wide, but to call her “just” a jazz musician is to ignore more than half her output and put an entirely unpigeonhole-able player into a box, however loosely defined the boundaries of the jazz idiom. But when you watch her perform, you forget about those labels or the stress of describing her. You leave mesmerized. Time stops for a draw of Jenny Scheinman’s bow.
Scheinman’s had a banner 2008, continuing her run of collaborations with the likes of Bill Frisell and country singer Rodney Crowell, but also releasing two superlative albums, Crossing the Field and Jenny Scheinman under her own name. Together they’re hugely ambitious—the former a selection of instrumentals, the latter a more pop-, rock- and country-flavored collection of vocal tunes representing Scheinman’s recorded singing debut—and even then do they barely come close to nailing the scope of her talents and the breadth of her interests.
At the Village Vanguard, she focused on the Field material, allowing the six-night, 12-show run to serve as an ad hoc CD release party. The third show of the run (Wednesday, Oct. 29’s early set), saw her taking hold for an hour of nine Scheinman originals, alternating between playfulness and pensiveness, not allowing either mood to hold the room for very long, but imbuing the entirety with warmth and excitement. If anything, the show zoomed by a little too fast, the group on and off before there was time to savor each selection.
It was useful to hear the compositions shed with a quartet, which for these shows consisted of Scheinman, drummer Rudy Royston, bassist Greg Cohen, and featured pianist Jason Moran (another wily, adventurous jazz cat with an experimental streak and world class talents that straddle a host of nominal genres). Compared to the recordings on Field, which in large part feature a Scheinman-led septet backed by a string orchestra, the instrumentation was spare. But without such a multi-layered tapestry, it was easier to admire how sturdy and invigorating Scheinman’s originals are unto themselves, whether the fizzier, funkier, snappier numbers (the chugging, aptly-named new song “Bray”, and the groovy “American Dipper”) or the moving ballads (the closing “Born Into This”, the breathtaking “Sleeping in the Aquifer”, which Scheinman dedicated to her aunt).
Scheinman shone throughout—a total clinic on dynamics, syncopation, string sonics, and improvisation both lively and delicate. She yielded almost as much stretch-out space to Moran, who as usual allowed his accessibility to stay just ahead of his mischief streak, which meant vamps that were tastefully creative and solo flights that toyed with meter and structure but never fell apart. For their part, Royston and Cohen saw few individual pieces of the limelight, but both seasoned players jam-packed the fast numbers with heaps of backbeat and snaking, groovy undercurrents, and in the slow burners were as economical in their accompaniment as Scheinman and Moran were just-so in their leads. Yet for all the acrobatics and shifts in mood, no one in the group once gilded the lily, and when they were through, the audience had joined Scheinman in a similar trance-like state.