Fiddler Jenny Scheinman has played live and recorded in a variety of different genres from Klezmer and jazz to folk to country to classical to the blues, and just about anywhere in between and wherever these styles fuse. To call her eclectic would be an understatement. She is a recognized talent who freely experiments and collaborates with others from all fields.
Scheinman composed the bulk of the songs on her latest release, Here on Earth for a project with filmmaker Finn Taylor based on archival footage of H. Lee Waters’, who took photographs of America’s Piedmont region during the Great Depression. The results, like the images, many of which are reproduced in miniature in the CD booklet, are stark and haunting—but they are also lilting and innocent. She captures a myriad of human emotions and behaviors.
This is somewhat in contrast to the more familiar images of the South during the Depression, like those of Walker Evans in his and James Agee’s classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans and Agee revealed the stark dignity of the people who lived there. They documented how the other half lived so that citizens would empathize and help. Scheinman looks at the H. Lee Waters footage from the era and expresses a shared connection. She feels one with the characters, perhaps because of incidents in her past, and she understands that even in hard times life has its ups as well as downs.
Not having seen the film nor the photos except in reduced form, I may be reading too much into Scheinman’s music. Be that as it may, describing instrumental music with words is difficult. Suffice it to say that the 15 tracks here take the listener on an aural journey to the gritty past where the connections between being brave and realistic, courageous and coarse, liquored up and stone sober, are all part of the continuum of daily life.
For example, on the coyly titled “Delinquent Bill”, one can easily imagine a person dancing his or her way to the bank, knowing one doesn’t have the money to make a payment. There’s something liberating in the way Scheinman’s fiddle swings that suggests money worries are like the fear of being hit by a meteor. There’s nothing one can do but go on with daily life.
Scheinman’s joined by multi-instrumentalist Danny Barnes (banjo, guitar, tuba) and Bill Frissell on most of the tracks. Robbie Fulks joins her on guitar and banjo on three songs, and Robbie Gjersoe plays the resonator guitar on two cuts. Fulks poignantly addressed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on his last album, Upland Stories, and his work here is also noteworthy. Here on Earth begins with Fulks’ insistent guitar strumming that sets the pace for Scheinman to fiddle over, and it’s something special when he starts to pick or the two start to harmonize. Barnes and Frisell’s many contributions should not be overlooked as well. While Scheinman’s work takes up the musical foreground, the two others provide an array of settings for her to play.
Take the track “Hive of Bees”. Scheinman’s fiddle mimics buzzing through short, repetitive strokes while simultaneously adding a lively melody. Barnes and Frisell deepen the impact by playing at a lower register and mucking things up a bit with stray sounds. The result suggests the mystery of it all. Scheinman and company aren’t attributing anything menacing or honeyed to the bees—the meaning is descriptive. A hive of bees is a hive of bees, nothing more, nothing less…
In the liner notes, Scheinman writes that this work is meant to celebrate the common person and as such, “These are melodies that anybody with a rudimentary musical skill can play.” That’s hogwash. From a musical standpoint, she may be correct. Another fiddler with limited talent may be able to hit all the notes. But Scheinman’s virtuosity lies in her ability to put the notes together into musical phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs that tell a story. Not a narrative one with a beginning, middle and end; Scheinman’s playing is more akin to abstract poetry whose connections are associative. One need not see the film or photos these pieces were written for to appreciate what makes them extraordinary. One just has to listen.
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