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On The String: Roots Mingles With Jazz In The Fluid Vision Of Jenny Scheinman

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Violinist Jenny Scheinman was newly in New York, a twentysomething breaking into the jazz scene when she got her first big ask – to play a fourteen-show run at the Village Vanguard with guitar icon Bill Frisell. When she looked in the folio of charts he sent to prepare, she was surprised to see some old fiddle tunes and country songs, a mingling rare in jazz but in tune with her background. As she put it in a JazzTimes interview, “Hank Williams and Sonny Rollins, they’re right there with each other.”

Because of this ecumenical worldview, Scheinman has enjoyed one of the singular careers in modern music. She is a fiddler and a violinist, an ensemble side musician and a singer/songwriter. Her relationship with Frisell grew across many projects and tours, while she became a leading jazz violin name, but she’s also traveled in support of Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Cockburn and Robbie Fulks. She has two superlative vocal folk-rock albums to her credit, but her last two recordings have been instrumental, one in a moody old-time vein and another in contemporary jazz. She’s beguiling and hard to pin down, and for those reasons I’ve long been a fan. So for Episode 160 of The String, I sought her out.

I reached the artist at her home of the last couple of years in Arcata, in Northern California, not far from where she grew up in what she calls a “homestead community” where folk music was part of her family life and her off-the-grid upbringing. She played violin and piano growing up and found her fiddling more adaptable to the variety of working bands she got involved with after moving to the Bay Area. When many of her colleagues and friends there moved East and formed bands that included breakouts like Norah Jones (whose first album she plays on), she followed suit and built a unique world around her instrument and voice.

“I've never really been on a mission and to be honest,” she tells me about her fiddle/violin, roots/jazz dichotomy. “I'm not like a huge fan of the jazz violin. I've transcribed a lot of a lot more other instruments than jazz violin. My biggest influences I wouldn't say are jazz violin players…I just liked the freedom of music that vamped and music that went through different colors, and I liked having all that color behind me. And I'm kind of exploratory, and I like being a student, and there's so much to learn in jazz, you know, that it was just, I just was so intrigued there, it kept being mysteries to, to explore and go after.”

Her most recent project, which led to significant touring before the pandemic, is a jazz quartet she co-leads with drummer Allison Miller called Parlor Game. It’s a woman-powered dynamo, given that Miller’s among the most celebrated drummers and composers in the business now, while pianist Carmen Staff has a gilded resume and an incredible, original touch. This is a jazz purist’s album with a variety of moods. But Scheinman’s previous outing Here On Earth, music commissioned for a documentary film, found her composing original fiddle tunes in an old-time vein, but glittered up with the electric guitar of Frisell and banjo from Danny Barnes.

And we go back farther in her catalog to her striking pair of songwriter albums, a self-titled vocal debut on KOCH in 2008 and 2014’s The Littlest Prisoner on Sony Masterworks. Here, especially on the latter, produced by indie maestro Tucker Martine, there’s a whole new kind of command, with roots rock assertiveness mingling with gossamer subtlety. She says more vocal albums in the future are possible, but there’s no clear plan.

It’s quite a diverse career by a woman who doesn’t do boundaries and who’s constantly involved with some of the highest-caliber musicians in the country, from jazz to country. Our conversation is paired with a visit to another woman of jazz and roots, Nashville pianist, vocalist and songwriter Kandace Springs, whom I formally profiled here.

Listen to The String #160 with Jenny Scheinman here: