Genre-hopping jazz violinist's new Nels Cline-enhanced ensemble is a little bit rock 'n' roll, all great.
Although most of her solo releases fit comfortably under the big tent of contemporary jazz, gifted violinist-composer Jenny Scheinman has never seemed particularly concerned with genre boundaries. When she isn't recording adventurous albums of originals, or collaborating with like-minded, free-thinking jazz artists like Bill Frisell, she keeps one foot in the world of rock, providing session and arranging work for high-profile artists as diverse as Lucinda Williams, Ani Difranco, and, yes, Lou Reed and Metallica. In 2008, she even released a self-titled album of folk originals and covers, on which she made her vocal debut.
You can't miss this musical open-mindedness on Mischief & Mayhem, certainly Scheinman's most playful album and among her best. The album title also serves as the name of her new ensemble of eclectic pros, including guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Jim Black, and bassist Todd Sickafoose. With Cline being the best reason to see Wilco live these days, Sickafoose playing bass for Difranco, and Black leading his own post-rock-leaning jazz outfit, AlasNoAxis, they and Scheinman all have an affinity for occasionally tearing it up, which clearly dictated the writing and selection of the material.
Yet it would be a stretch to call Mischief & Mayhem Scheinman's big rock move, just as it would be to call 2002's The Rabbi's Lover her big klezmer move. She demonstrates here once again that she's not much for squeezing everything from a form and subsequently discarding it. Rather, each album highlights a musical interest, while remaining informed by the others. Thus, this album features Scheinman at her most rockin', but also benefits from simply being her latest. We not only get the added value of Scheinman trading furious leads with Cline, but we can trace the flexible quartet feel back to Live at Yoshi's, the hints of jazzified Jewish traditionalism to The Rabbi's Lover and Shalagaster, and the strong melodic leads and the occasional feel of wide-open spaces to Crossing the Field.
On the other hand, if you're in this strictly to hear Scheinman, Cline, Black, and Sickafoose kick out the proverbial jams, you won't be disappointed. The title of "Blues for the Double Vee" is a Village Vanguard reference, and the track, itself, is grounded in Monk-inspired intervals, but it has just as much CBGB in its DNA. Black thrashes the song's steadfast groove into a furor, Cline switches between bluesy surf licks and dramatic power chords, and Scheinman makes like Thurston Moore with overdriven violin squeal. This bunch isn't averse to the slow build, either. "Devil's Ink" taunts with eerie guitar effects and cymbal rolls for most of its eight minutes before settling into nervous punk prog, as tuneful as it is twisty.
Given the considerable shredding power here, many of the highlights are strategically restrained, instead emphasizing Scheinman's ability to write and play leads that mimic the expressiveness of the human voice. The opener, "A Ride with Polly Jean", was inspired by Scheinman's fantasy of driving the California coast with PJ Harvey, but its beautifully languid, vaguely Middle Eastern melody is what sticks more than any overt similarity to Harvey even at her most serene. Two pretty, if slightly less distinctive, ballads, "The Audit" and "July Tenth in Three Four", are similarly built for complementing Scheinman's talents as melodicist. So is "Sand Dipper", an appealingly weird experiment that would practically sound at home on The Rabbi's Lover were the klezmer sound of the violin not against a background of atmospheric guitar swells and unpredictable bass slides.
Speaking of The Rabbi's Lover, the final track on Mischief & Mayhem is "The Mite", a composition originally written for the earlier project. It's hard to imagine this dynamically chugging piece, with its swooping leads and noise breakdowns, ever fitting in among that album's stately variations on Jewish trad music. But it's a great capper for Mischief & Mayhem, the album, and a promise of more great things to come from Mischief & Mayhem, the band.