Jenny Scheinman’s California Dreamin’

The jazz violinist has left Brooklyn behind for her old stomping grounds, and she seems to be thriving creatively.

05/06/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
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Scheinman’s new CD features her charming songwriting and vocals.  Joshua Black Wilkins
Scheinman’s new CD features her charming songwriting and vocals. Joshua Black Wilkins

When Jenny Scheinman’s newest CD, “The Littlest Prisoner,” is released this week, buyers may be a bit surprised. It’s no excursion into the variegated jazz styles that characterized her last recording, 2012’s “Mischief and Mayhem.”

“Prisoner” is a sprightly and sweet recording that features one of Scheinman’s regular trios — herself on violin, Bill Frissell on guitar and Brian Blades on drums — but it is also an exemplary piece of Americana (or alt.country, if you prefer), distinguished by Scheinman’s charming songwriting and vocals.

“One of the things I always try to remember is that a lot of artists want to surprise you,” Scheinman said in a telephone interview last week. “I remember going to a show by [free jazz pioneer] Ornette Coleman with my mother many years ago, and his opening act was a shaman of body-piercing, along with seven scantily clad, very skinny people ready to get their limbs and noses and eyelids pierced.”

That’s show business.

Nothing quite as radical occurs on “The Littlest Prisoner,” but as Scheinman says of Coleman, “He continues to follow his passion and make good art,” and that is what she is doing, too.

The multiple-garlanded violinist — she has been in the top 10 of Downbeat’s critics’ poll on her instrument for a decade — finds songwriting gives her an outlet for another talent, storytelling.

“I love stories,” she says. “My songs are somewhere between story and situation. There’s also character and mood. I’m an intuitive writer, both with instrumentals and songs with words.”

She downplays the difference between the two.

“People who are used to seeing me perform at the Village Vanguard might be surprised, but I have performed this stuff with Bill and Brian at Zankel Hall,” Scheinman notes, referring to one of the venues at Carnegie Hall. “Beyond the fact that there are lyrics, there’s a lot of similarity to my other stuff. My other writing doesn’t have a lot of harmonic complexity. I’m a folk artist at heart.”

Folk music is part of her family heritage. Although her parents are both medical professionals, they are also avid musicians.

“My father sang to me every night,” she says. “The folk songs are something my father gave me that I’d like to give to my children.”

Which leads us to the two biggest changes in Jenny Scheinman’s life.

Her son Bellamy arrived in 2009, and he was followed by a sister, Rosa, three years later. After a successful decade in Brooklyn, she and her partner Andrew Nofsinger relocated to Northern California and the isolated countryside in which she grew up.

“This has been a wonderful place, a convenient place for the last couple of years,” Scheinman says of Humboldt County. Her large extended family — parents, siblings, and so on — has provided her with emotional support and instant babysitting.

“I’m mooching off everyone who knows how to take on kids,” she adds with a laugh.

But for a working musician, Arcata, where she lives, and Petrolia, where her parents are, might as well be on the moon.

“This is the most inconvenient place to live as a musician,” Scheinman says. “It’s far from a major airport; there are no professional musicians around. I’m a total aberration here.”

But that sense of isolation has its advantages, she quickly adds.

“I have a lot of stuff that I was unable to finish in New York. Getting out of the fray and the intensely distracting atmosphere of New York City was good. I’m one of those people who says ‘Yes’ to everything and in New York that’s a real liability. In the city, I could be playing seven nights a week and not finding the time to finish my own compositions. That’s not possible here.”

The rural setting affords Scheinman another advantage, a most unlikely one, an opportunity to partake in her family’s Jewish traditions.

“We just went through Passover,” she explains. “I grew up in a runaway Jewish hippie-land. My parents are both doctors but they’re part of that [’60s] American story; the way they kept their Jewish traditions alive was community, kibbutz-style. My experience with seders is a big community, lots of kids’ involvement, lots of discussion and argument, a lot of Elijah in there.”

The central figure in those events was Scheinman’s grandmother, who was also her piano teacher.

“All the Jewish tradition I had came from my grandmother who grew up in Palestine and eloped with my grandfather and went to New York,” she says. “She lived very close to us until she died when I was around 20. She sang a lot of songs, led the Passover seders. It was a very rich part of my life and my grandmother was a big part of my life. All of those things, the little bit of [Jewish] background that I have, I am passing along to my kids.”

Of course New York offers a rather different Jewish experience.

“When I moved to New York I became interested in a lot of the Jewish traditions that I wasn’t aware of as a kid,” Scheinman says. “A lot of my friends were more [knowledgeable] than I, and they were able to teach me more, share more of their stories, invite me into that world. I really miss that ,being in a much more secular area. I miss being able to go to [different seders].”

Will she return to New York? Scheinman doesn’t know yet.

For a jazz musician, for any musician, proximity to concert halls, clubs, rehearsal spaces, recording studios and the like is important. For a parent, proximity to family is just as important. And the relative peace of her current location contributes to the creative process in a significant way.

“In the city everybody is scrambling to make the rent,” Scheinman says. “Having that pressure alleviated has been great for me creatively. It has allowed me to be more thoughtful about my writing and my life as a writer of songs, as an artist.”

“The Littlest Prisoner” is available on the Sony Masterworks label. Scheinman will be returning to New York City this summer, playing an album release event at Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker St.) on June 30.

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