Music Reviews
10:46 am
Wed April 18, 2012

Jenny Scheinman's 'Mayhem' Hard To Pin Down

Originally published on Wed April 18, 2012 12:24 pm

Violinist Jenny Scheinman's band and new album are both called Mischief and Mayhem. The record was made just after her quartet played a week at the Village Vanguard, but despite the jazz cred of regular Vanguard appearances, their stylistically fluid music draws on a lot of traditions. There are pieces dedicated to rock singer PJ Harvey and Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré.

Look at these musicians' backgrounds, and you can see why their stuff is hard to pigeonhole. Nels Cline was a leading guitarist in improvised music, until he got drafted into the band Wilco and developed another reputation. Drummer Jim Black excels at playing jazz with a rock-ish eighth-note feel. Bassist Todd Sickafoose has made a bunch of jazz records, but tours with singer Ani DiFranco. And Jenny Scheinman's high-lonesome fiddle is a perfect fit for guitarist Bill Frisell's projects, which hover between jazz and back-porch music. One Mischief and Mayhem tune, "The Audit," makes you want to read Civil War letters out loud.

Scheinman's Mischief and Mayhem spends a lot of time just lingering over the melodies, but its members can get abstract, too. Nels Cline is a master of effects pedals, and can bring some welcome noise when the music threatens to get too sweet. There are wide-open moments on Scheinman's "Devil's Ink" that, taken out of context, could pass for modern composed music.

Scheinman's quartet represents a specific breed of contemporary players, raised on and used to playing all kinds of music; they don't worry much about what genre they're working in. With their broad frames of reference, they can take the music wherever they want, by design or in the moment.

I'm not much for prognosticating about music's future. But we may be headed toward one of those periods of heated discussion about jazz parameters — about what the music properly is or isn't, when genre-benders like these use rock rhythms and pull in influences from Appalachia to East Asia. When borders get porous, some folks get nervous. But it's more important to make sure good music gets its due than to worry about what to call it. As one musician plagued by classification issues used to say, don't let the "isms" get in the way of the "is."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says violinist and sometimes-singer Jenny Schienman is particularly hard to pin down, having toured with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and alt country singer Lucinda Williams, arranged music for Lou Reed, recorded with Nora Jones and guested with the Rova Saxophone Quartet. Kevin says her new album is in keeping with that diverse resume.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUES FOR THE VV")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Violinist Jenny Scheinman's "Blues for the VV," meaning the Village Vanguard. It was recorded just after her quartet played a week at that New York jazz shrine. The band on their new CD are both called "Mischief and Mayhem." Despite the jazz cred of regular Vanguard appearances, their stylistically fluid music draws on a lot of traditions. There are pieces dedicated to rock singer PJ Harvey and Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Look at these musicians' backgrounds; you can see why their stuff is hard to pigeonhole. Nels Cline was a leading guitarist in improvised music, until he got drafted into the band Wilco and developed another reputation. Drummer Jim Black excels at playing jazz with a rock-ish eighth-note feel. Bassist Todd Sickafoose has made a bunch of jazz records, but tours with singer Ani DiFranco.

And Jenny Scheinman's high lonesome fiddle is a perfect fit for guitarist Bill Frisell's projects that hover between jazz and back-porch music. One Mischief and Mayhem tune, "The Audit," makes you want to read Civil War letters out loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE AUDIT")

WHITEHEAD: Jenny Scheinman's Mischief and Mayhem spends a lot of time just lingering over the melodies, but they can get abstract, too. Nels Cline is a master of guitar effects pedals, and can bring some welcome noise when the music threatens to get too sweet. There are wide-open moments on Scheinman's "Devil's Ink" that, taken out of context, could pass for modern composed music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEVIL'S INK")

WHITEHEAD: Scheinman's quartet represents a breed of contemporary players, raised on and used to playing all kinds of music; they don't worry much about what genre they're working in. With their broad frames of reference, they can take the music wherever they want, by design or in the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: I'm not much for prognosticating about music's future. But we may be headed toward one of those periods of heated discussion about jazz parameters - about what the music properly is or isn't, when genre-benders like these use rock rhythms and pull in influences from Appalachia to East Asia.

When borders get porous, some folks get nervous. But it's more important to make sure good music gets its due, than to worry what to call it. As one musician plagued by classification issues used to say, don't let the "isms" get in the way of the "is."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and is the author of the book, "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Mischief and Mayhem" by violinist Jenny Scheinman and her band Mischief and Mayhem. Coming up, our film critic David Edelstein reviews the French Canadian film "Monsieur Lazhar" which was nominated for an Oscar. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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