Jenny Scheinman: Touching Many Strings
Scheinman didn't stay at Oberlin, instead transferring to UC Berkeley where she graduated with honors in English literature in 1995. She considered using her degree to supplement her desire to play music, but was music's pull was stronger. "I started playing professionally when the small allowance from my dad was not paying rent, she says, laughing. "So I started busking. I was living in Santa Cruz, playing cafes. I started playing with the Hot Club of San Francisco (doing Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli repertoire). I started driving up to San Francisco to do gigs and eventually moved up there. It turned into not only a need, but a passion to play. I was in lots of bands there.
Gig were varied in order to make money and learn the business. They included work with John Schott and Ben Goldberg, the Rova Saxophone Quartet, violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt, and in a regional rock band called Charming Hostess. The Bay area was fruitful in another way. She met producer Lee Townsend, through whom she got involved in recording projects, and met musicians like Vinicius Cantuaria, which led her to Frisell.
In 1999, Scheinman made a decision to go east, to New York City.
"I didn't know what would happen, she admits. "I wasn't so aware of a career. Certainly the gigs pay a lot less here [NYC]. Maybe 30 percent less. People out in the Bay area actually live there and make a living there. They don't tour. So they depend on the gigs there to make a living. I am sure there are people here that stay here all the time, but they have lots of private party gigs and club dates. I haven't totally gotten into that scene here.
"I just came here to study. I was hearing all these people on recordings that actually lived here and did gigs at local places and I wanted to hear them. I'd been coming here every summer for a month or so, for a bunch of years. It was partly for family. There are some relatives here. It was familiar. Still dauntingly huge, but familiar.
"In the Bay area, I used to play this wonderful place called Bruno's every Wednesday for a while. That's where I really practiced leading a band and writing music. Improvising. I was really doing my own thing. It had its heyday when I was around there, she says. But the scene stagnated somewhat and musicians were leaving. "People leave, so I just went with everybody to here.
She's been getting gigs with people like Frisell and did some self- produced recordings with just bass and drums. In 2000, she did her first recording for a label, Live at Yoshi's (Avant). That was all-original material, as is the case on her two ensuing releases, The Rabbi's Lover (Tzadik, 2001) and Shalagaster (Tzadik, 2004), which led up to 12 Songs.
Her name is being mentioned in jazz polls, and her records have a following. But Scheinman seems unsure of what her "popularity is, and is not going to lose any sleep over it. Her music matters more.
"I don't really have a sense of that. If there's some big write-up in the New York Times, then people come. I play every Tuesday at Barbes, when I'm in town. The Barbes regulars know me., she says. "You just keep playing. I play with lots of different people. If I play at Barbes with Danny Barnes, all the banjo fanatics of New York hopefully will come. So maybe it diversifies my audience.
Even her connection with the enormously popular Norah Jones album skews her perspective or pushes her off center. After all, Jones performed behind Scheinman on gigs in Brooklyn before her sudden rise took her on the road.
"That was a big exciting record. It was great for that world of songwriters. It was cool. I'm a good friend of hers, but I didn't tour with her. I've performed with her a bit here, with her music. An she's played with me a bit. The other friends of ours that were actually in her band disappeared for three years on the road with her.
"It's weird, she says, finding a surreal humor in it. "Probably George Bush has heard me, come to think of it. He's probably heard me on Norah Jones' record. If 20 million records are sold, they've got to get to people's ears you'd never imagine.
For the future, Scheinman said she is looking for a manager and a record label. "A long time ago I did another record, sans label. I don't think I'll do that again. I play lots of different kinds of stuff and I'm quite passionate about a lot of it. I would love to find a label that would be interested in the various sides of me, that would embrace a more complex character, or a more realistic version of a musician.