Songs Set Free

On ‘The Littlest Prisoner,’ violinist Jenny Scheinman reaches out to a new audience
For most of her extraordinary career, Jenny Scheinman’s violin has done the talking.

On eight diverse and acclaimed solo albums, and a dizzying number of collaborations with everyone from folk rocker Bruce Cockburn to avant-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to vocalist Norah Jones, Scheinman has gained a reputation as a generous musician who gives her fellow performers ample space while adding her own signature improvisational flair to the proceedings.

Over the past year, however, Scheinman has ventured into new territory, playing solo in large venues—with just her violin and voice—as she opens for such popular acts as Cockburn and Ani DiFranco. Much of the material she has been performing is derived from her forthcoming album, The Littlest Prisoner(Sony Masterworks), which finds Scheinman singing on almost every track.

Stepping up to the microphone is just one of many changes in Sheinman’s life of late. Recently, she gave birth to a daughter and returned to California’s Humboldt County after spending the last 14 years entrenched in New York’s jazz scene.

I caught up with Scheinman in Seattle, where she was enjoying a day off on a tour opening for DiFranco.

How does playing a show with indie folk singer Ani DiFranco differ from your days in the New York jazz scene?

Every bandleader is different, and they set the tone. One of my private aspirations over the past five years or so was to play for more women. Demographically, you must know, the jazz world is predominantly men, onstage and offstage. I have nothing against men, but I’ve played with them and for them my whole life, and I just started wanting to try to figure out a way to play for more women—if only for my own prolonged interest in playing music. You know, it is a social thing, and you walk into a room that is 90 percent men, it has a certain feel. When I was just totally feeling like 100 percent a student of music, and I still feel  60 percent like that, when my dominant focus was learning, I just didn’t even notice who I was around socially. I would play with anybody I was interested in, and was taking any gig that came my way. Now I’m a little bit more focused and aware of the energy coming off the stage, not just the notes people choose, but the way they present it and the people they are presenting it to. Ani’s audience is probably 80 percent women. The jazz audience, I generally attract more women and older men, but still it’s jazz, and it’s still a lot of men in the audience. I’m speaking to my generation and maybe those who are a little bit younger.

What do you think accounts for the gender discrepancy in the two genres?


That’s the million-dollar question right there. I don’t know that I have an answer. I hope that some Ph.D. student, or 100 of them, try to figure that out. I have some guesses. One thing is that once the audience is, say, 75 percent men, women are less likely to want to go. The reverse is true. Some men are terrified to go to an Ani DiFranco show. I don’t know if it speaks to anything that is inherently different between men and women. I would not want to jump to any conclusions. Ani DiFranco’s music is extremely personal, narrative, and autobiographical. It’s as if you’re having a conversation with her. It’s as if she’s ready to reveal her process, whereas in jazz the details of the life of the performer are much more hidden.

It seems like there’s a whole new generation of young women who are starting to play bluegrass. Do you see the same thing happening in jazz?

I do know that in the jazz world and the bowed-string improvising scene the world for young musicians is very different because there are all these programs. It has become very institutionalized, the teaching of jazz and also the teaching of bluegrass. The Berklee [College] scene, they pump out more improvising bowers than ever were around when I was starting out. So that’s a great thing. It’s great that institutions think about what are good and fair ways to approach the population, so it’s much more comfortable for the minorities, like women. Basically, I was having to hang out in really late-night jazz clubs with mostly men, older than me, and there wasn’t that sort of comfort with the institution saying, “Everybody’s welcome and we’re going to get fired if we don’t help the women as much as the men.”

How would you describe the difference between performing as a singer and as a violinist?

Songs with words are completely different than instrumentals. The mystical out-of-body experience of a great instrumental show with [guitarist] Bill Frisel or [pianist] Jason Moran, that’s a real bond with everybody, and can be very moving. It’s an adventure. But the words thing is very direct, and you make people cry, if you’re lucky, because they connect with something specific in their own life. It’s a much more grounded kind of experience.

So what’s the biggest difference between writing for violin and writing songs with lyrics?


The obvious thing is that you can say something with words, and without them you can’t really say anything. Most people that write instrumental music, the truth is that they title their tunes long after they write them, and they just make up something. I could write a song called “House Fire” and the same song I could call “Dewey Daffodil” and people would hear it differently based on the title. It’s totally arbitrary. With words, you’re stuck. You commit to the meaning of the song. I’m slow writing songs with words, with getting the right words in there. With instrumental music, I do work at it, but some bands I’m in, you bring in a six-note scrap, but if you have the right musicians, they can make a masterpiece out of it. The world I’ve been in of jazz musicians, so much is on the musician to create content and narrative and vibe. I do like playing in bands where that scrap, even if it is six notes, is really compelling. Good improvising musicians can make a lot out of very little.

Do you see yourself as tiring of improvisation on the violin?

No, I tried to put this vocal record out three or four years ago. I had most of the songs written a while ago, but it takes me a while to make singing albums. It’s easier for me to pull off an instrumental record. I have many more of them, and I know how to produce them. I do want to continue to play jazz and improvise and I’m probably going to be playing with Bill [Frisell] for the rest of our lives. That mystical experience you get playing instrumental music is a thrill and has been such a main part of my spiritual life. That experience of bonding with musicians on stage and going somewhere together is really compelling to me.

How do you think your move to California will affect your chops as an improviser?


I’m not playing five nights a week in the clubs. A smaller part of my life will be that “just show up and blow.” You know, you can’t do everything. One of the things that was suffering for me in New York was my own writing and the kind of research that you do alone—reading and studying music. Studying opera, studying all the things that go into continuing to learn to write. There’s so much space for me to do that now. I’ve played so much. It was great to live in New York for 14 years and play nightly, or twice a night. But it takes up a lot of energy. I miss playing with people all the time, but I’ve written a whole lot of material. I’m glad I lived in New York for so long, and I will likely move back at some point.

What’s been the biggest change in your violin playing over the past few years?

You know, I’ve played on a lot of really big stages. All those opening spots for people like Bruce Cockburn or Ani DiFranco were really a new experience. Playing solo at Massey Hall, sold out. In terms of being a performer, being able to walk out onto a stage without loops, without guitar, without anything, I’d probably feel the same if I went without clothes. There’s very little to hide behind. I’m singing and I’m plucking and bowing my violin, which is about the same register as my voice. There’s a sort of suspense when you see someone come out with just a fiddle to see if they can actually pull
it off.

In jazz it’s very much about listening to the other musicians in the band, and becoming one entity. Getting all your psychic energy finely tuned so that you can quickly respond to other ideas. When I play with Bill [Frisell], we often never make eye contact with anybody in the audience, we’re just looking at each other. For the audience, it’s witnessing something intimate, a conversation happening onstage, and with singing and with solo performance it’s me and the audience, and it’s a totally different energy exchange. That’s been a big thing, just having to summon the charisma to pull off a solo show.