Jenny Scheinman has a resume that explains her as well as anything might: She grew up in a rural community studying Suzuki violin, studied at Oberlin and UC Berkeley and found her way to New York and into the community of kind-of-jazz/kind-of-something-else musicians that includes the likes of Chris Speed, Myra Melford, Bill Frisell and even Norah Jones. Her own recordings have been eclectic and ambitious, and her 2005 collection, 12 Songs was a career-defining gem: theatrical, swinging, pastoral and melodic.
This past spring, Scheinman released two recordings simultaneously on Koch, Jenny Scheinman, her first recording to feature primarily her own singing, and Crossing the Field, an instrumental collection that follows up the success of 12 Songs. Field remained a download-only release only until October, when Koch gave it a CD release.
Field turns out to sound a great deal like 12 Songs, with much of its core band (Ron Miles on trumpet, Mr. Frisell’s guitar, Doug Weiselman on clarinet, Tim Luntzel on bass) in tact. Two differences are critical, however: the piano work of Jason Moran and the contributions of and writing for an 18-piece string section.
Scheinman’s tuneful and accessible sense of composition remain. Her writing can be achingly melodic (“Processional”), impish (“That’s Delight”), soulful (“Song for Sidiki”) or joyously swinging (“I Heart Eye Patch”). Unlike many progressive jazz records that come from the downtown scene, Field is not a chore to enjoy. It invites your ears to come along for a pleasant ride, with improvisations that stay mostly “inside” the harmony and that are executed with a melodic pleasure. The styles shift enough to keep the record both interesting and familiar: jazz, yes, but also theater music, a dash of folkish country, a slice of blues and so on.
Moran provides the most arresting work and features prominently on “That’s Delight” and “Hard Sole Shoe”. “That’s Delight”, a clever riff tune, sounds as if it could have been written by Thelonious Monk on a particularly sunny day. Performed as a quartet, Scheinman and Moran take solos that spin and dance with plain delight. “Hard Sole Shoe” sets up two-chord groove over a thumping rock beat, which simply sets Moran free to play. His fertile imagination allow him to mix gospel playing with effective modern jazz re-harmonization — all while playing effectively against Scheinman’s hip arrangement for the string orchestra.
A special treat sits smack in the middle of this recording: “Awful Sad” by Billy Strayhorn, which lets both Moran and Scheinman dig into the jazz history of their instruments. Scheinman’s playing proves earthy and expressive, bending notes more than usual and letting her sound get fatter and more extravagant than usual. Moran counters with a precise and delicate solo, reminding that the Ellington piano style that preceded bebop was also harmonically intriguing and often eccentric. Moran is masterful here.
The orchestra gets both featured tracks and is used nimbly on other tunes as a natural part of the playing ensemble. On “Born Into This”, for example, the string section plays a floating melody over the band’s swaying 6/8 ripple of sound. The arrangement, a simple parallel harmony, makes the orchestra sound folk-like, not schmaltzy. “The Careeners” sets up a high-stepping oom-pah groove over a martial drum sound — with the orchestra playing a circus theme of sorts that dashes and slides.
Three through-written tracks that mostly isolate the orchestra without improvisation. The stately “Ana Eco” uses a pedal-point tone for long stretches. About halfway through, a whispering rhythm section joins the group, bringing to mind what Bill Frisell might have done in collaboration with Aaron Copland. “Einsamaller” (recorded live in New York) features mostly strings and sounds again Copland-esque, particularly in the way it layers or textures the long, held harmonies. The overtones are powerful, and Scheinman seems to be playing with bringing the different lines “in and out of phase” somewhat like a molasses-slow Steve Reich. “Ripples in the Aquifier” sounds more conventionally classical in its melodic and harmonic movement.
In the end, these orchestral tracks seem, perhaps, to be part of a different Jenny Scheinman project. A large and diverse talent, Scheinman places the focus and the action on Crossing the Field more squarely on her terrific band. (One wonders what she can do as a string composer.) Her band plays with moving beauty — as on the lovely Ron Miles trumpet solo on “Old Brooklyn” — and with puckish fun, as on the spinning gallop of “Three Bits and a Horse”. The latter gives Frisell room to play a devilish counterpoint to Miles’s melody, with the two going head-to-head like two puppies on a great lawn. This kind of playing, like that of Scheinman and Moran on other tunes, makes Field a bit less “folkish” and helps it to avoid seeming like a too-pleasant experience.
But who wants to get into the business of telling an expansive talent like Scheinman to focus more clearly? Her appeal is built on the breadth of her skill and interest. Her music draws together many American strands, and on many of her tunes the whole seems seamless. These are not hip-hop collages. Rather, Jenny Scheinman has found a sensibility — part Norah Jones, part downtown jazz club, part Big Apple Circus — that invites many flavors into one stew.
It’s a tasty jambalaya — not too spicy, not too mild. More, please!