Recording of June 2008: Jenny Scheinman

JENNY SCHEINMAN: Jenny Scheinman
Koch KOC-AD-4483 (CD). 2008. Jenny Scheinman, Tony Scherr, prods.; Scherr, eng. AAD? TT: 53:26
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Out in Brooklyn, New York, the place where all of New York's musicians not named Marsalis or Hewson now live, and the up-and-coming band capital of the western world, there's a little hole-in-the wall club called Barbès. Depending on your need for space, Barbès is either a cramped dump with low ceilings that has no business hosting live music, or a dauntless melting pot where the skills of players from different genres often collide and make wondrous multicultural music together.

One of the Barbès regulars is violinist Jenny Scheinman, who moved to New York from San Francisco in 1999 and promptly became a well-known member of greater New York's diverse jazz community—kind of the go-to A-lister when a violin is required. Along the way she's also made four edgy, much-praised jazz albums, and has garnered the No.1 Rising Star Violinist award in Downbeat Magazine's annual critics' poll for the past five years. Stereophile writer Fred Kaplan made her release, Shalagaster, one of Slate.com's Year's Best Records for 2004.

But while she's played the Village Vanguard, recorded for out jazz labels like Cryptogramophone and John Zorn's Tzadik, and generally won the favor of the ever-vigilant jazz police, Scheinman has another life—as a singer, player, and composer of Americana. She's now decided to court wider fame (or critical confusion) by being bold and releasing two CDs—one for each of her personalities—on the same day. Crossing the Field, the instrumental disc with guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Jason Moran, is Scheinman's typical mix of jazz and pop tunes transmogrified by her deft fiddle magic. The self-titled vocal disc is less-well-known territory. When it came time to decide which we'd name as "Recording of the Month," to my surprise, Stereophile's editor, John Atkinson, enthusiastically favored the vocal disc.

The idea of longtime instrumentalists singing sends a shiver down my spine. Most want to do it and are sure they can, but rare is the musician who can sing as well as he or she can play. Despite this reality, more than a few guitar wizards and saxophone prodigies have waxed sessions in which they croon away, oblivious to their own less-than-thrilling ranges and timbres. Scheinman's clear voice—JA calls it "pure"—is strong, though not overly blessed with range or expression. It's very reminiscent of the kind of pipes that singers of "mountain music" often have. Think a stronger, fleshier Gillian Welch, a less twangy Hazel Dickens, or a young LO-retty (Lynn), and you'll get the idea.

Always the crafty artist, Scheinman very rightly stays away from overtly country material, preferring instead to open with Dylan's "I Was Young When I Left Home," followed by an original rock track, "Come On Down," whose wiry guitars and slapdash drumming remind me of a chugging Faces tune.

Perhaps the first signs that this is going to be an instrumentalist vocal album worth listening to are the four originals Scheinman penned for this project. The best of these, "The Green," is a very personal journey for Scheinman, in that it tells the story of an unnamed aunt who disappeared in 2005.

Is she living as some stranger's bride?
Who was the last one to see her?
But was he even a lover, was she running for cover
Is there something he's trying to hide?

Alert to the fact that instrumentalist vocal albums often fatally stumble over weak or inappropriate material, Scheinman then ventures into an uncommonly solid and flavorful batch of mostly covers. One sure sign that this is an album to be reckoned with is that she breezes through the difficult task of choosing two genuinely interesting and not overexposed or obvious blues covers: Mississippi John Hurt's " Miss Collins," and Jimmy Reed's late-career masterpiece, the often strangely neglected "Shame Shame Shame" (not to be confused with Shirley and Co.'s 1974 disco hit of the same title). The atmospheric guitar playing, both acoustic and electric, by Bill Frisell and producer Tony Scherr, consistently sets the right tone

One of Scheinman's most impressive career credits so far is as an arranger on Lucinda Williams' West. Scheinman has spoken in interviews about how the singer-songwriter is something of a spiritual mentor. Here she excels in a slow take of Williams' "King of Hearts" that's highlighted by a slow, slightly unhinged solo from Scherr.

The album closes with Scheinman's take on "Johnsburg, Illinois," that exquisitely melodic two-minute burst of sentimentality from Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones. Again, Scheinman takes a risk. While the song is a sure thing, adapting it from a regretful Waitsian growl to the voice of a soprano who prefers to sing in long, uninterrupted lines is a gamble that pays off. She also adds a violin solo, one of the few on this record.

Recorded in Brooklyn on Scherr's home studio on an analog eight-track machine, the sound is warm and transparent and, interestingly, not focused primarily on the voice; Scherr prefers a more open ensemble sound.

Though making a vocal record is a dream most instrumentalists cherish, few can pull it off with the style and panache that Jenny Scheinman shows here. The key is that she has wisely stacked the deck in her favor by choosing material that suits her voice and singing style. The violinist turned vocalist has given herself, if not a new career, then a much wider and more accomplished one.—Robert Baird

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