21 February 2007

Review: Jenny Scheinman

Barbes, Brooklyn, NY 13 February 2007

A little late on this one, but I did catch one other show besides the Arcade Fire last week: Jenny Scheinman at Barbes. Jenny is in residency at this little nook almost every Tuesday and there's nothing I love more than the ResideNYC. A residency can serve many purposes -- band's just getting going can use them to build chemistry and hone their collective chops, musicians use them to work out new material before hitting the road or settling down in the studio, or they can be used as a catchall, a blank canvas with no rules or regulations. Scheinman's is mostly the latter these days, the band is rarely the same, the material likely shifts just as much... even the genre is unclear from week to week: when I saw her last week it was mostly jazz-oriented, but this week she was doing her singin' country routine.

Whatever the music, one thing is clear: you owe it to yourself to make it every once in a while, especially if you live in Brooklyn. The shows start and end relatively early, so even on a cold night, you can get in and out without hassle, or let it start your evening off: you'll have plenty of time to go on to other stuff if your Tuesday should allow. Last week, Jenny had a usual cast of NYC bangers: Adam Levy on guitar, Ben Allison on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums and Aaron Goldberg on piano. I thought it was interesting that two big releases from last week, Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams, albums that would sell in the tens of thousands, featured musicians crammed into the corner of Barbes with an audience of 25 looking on.

They started a little before 7:30 with a quiet wash of music that wasn't too far removed from the previous 15 minutes of tuning up and sound checking. The back room at Barbes is one of those wonderfully private cubes, a three dimensional crumb in the universe where good music was destined to be made and appreciated by small groups of believers. This first song was one of those pieces of music that wasn't quite a song at all, where the musicians all sort of sit on the cusp of melody and the audience waits and waits for the song to "start." Minutes later, after completely atmospheric whooshing, when the sound has built to near-climax we realize that this is the song and gasp and smile and then it is over. It was a total-Frisell type piece coming from a band full of Frisell-family-tree types who have learned it well watching and playing with the masters.

The second number shifted gears completely into a more funky rave-up type thing. Scheinman shows total mastery over a range of styles and reveals the violin to be nearly as sonically flexible as the piano or guitar. Waits controlled a lot of the show starting with this piece, as he laid down a range of overlapping James-Brown-worthy breakdowns and drawing Allison into his web of groove. Solos from Scheinman and Levy made way for Goldberg who was very interesting to watch. When the band cleared way for his slot he seemed incredibly tentative, the look on his face not quite terror, but complete bewilderment. His hands seemed too small on the piano as he very delicately dipped his fingers onto the keys like he was washing them in some ceremonial bowl. As the solo built up, though, that look made more sense -- it was more of the concentration of an expert chess player, planning dozens of moves down the line of play. Aaron's touch remained incredibly light across the keys as he built momentum in speed and volume until the entire band joined him in checkmate.

From there the group played a couple more pieces each with its own distinct feel: a more straight jazz piece with klezmish leanings and one or two others. The music as a whole is border-straddling: jazz, country, classical, funk, pop... you can taste a little of all those spices. Jenny is a treat to watch. Every time I see her, on her own or backing someone else, she draws me in completely. She is the type of musician who opens up my eyes to an instrument I usually wouldn't pay a second notice to. She doesn't quite play the violin as much as coax it to sing and speak, sometimes long, gorgeous operatic notes and other times, emotive grunting and groaning. Watching her play, I realize how unnatural the instrument is. Most others: the guitar, the piano, etc., seem to have evolved to fit the human structure, they flow in with our bodily lines so that our hands naturally fall where they should to play. The violin seems to be almost violently orthogonal to this notion, sticking straight out from the body at right angles and forcing even more awkward angles from the wrists. And yet, Jenny makes this look and feel fluid and graceful and the music flows as such.

The band took a short break before which Scheinman announced that she was playing with Waits for the first time. That struck me a bit dumb -- the guy was masterful to the point where it seemed like he was dictating the pace and feel of each piece. This was even more apparent in the second set. The first number started off with a real catchy hook and rotated around each member in the usual way. But then it sort of veered off into this bridge where Jenny settled onto a single note -- one hypnotic bowed string over and over and over for minutes on end. Meanwhile, the band abandoned the one-solo-at-a-time method and congealed around Waits' rhythmic pacing. Nasheet took control, flipping the "jam" into a groove, then a reggae breakdown, then a dancehall breakdown and on and on. It was, if you'll forgive me, a bit Phish-esque, the way the band kind of freely flowed from one form to another under the guidance of the brilliant drumming. Allison seemed especially in tune with Waits, bopping along, literally bouncing up and down to the beats. This is where the beauty of the unknown rears its head and what makes a residency like this so priceless. These guys are all consummate pros, ready for anything, but probably expecting little more than reading some sheet music and taking a predetermined solo every once in a while. But then there are real moments when the bandleader closes her eyes and strokes her instrument in a trance and the entire room becomes completely hypnotized by the music being churned out in real time before them. Nothing short of magical as it smoothly flowed back into the original theme. From there it got drawn out and the band seemed reluctant to just let things end without more exploration. Scheinman was the consummate bandleader following the golden rule, allowing all her musicians freedom within the boundaries she created.

The night ended in a similar manner to which it had started. Jenny lead the charge as they built another sound collage, redefined what "beautiful music" was for just a few moments. When the night had started a short 90 minutes previously, it had been 5 musicians feeling each other out on a cold Tuesday night. Now, as the snow was starting to fall outside in the "real world" they were a band, tight, coherent and pretty amazing. Not bad for a show where they passed around a bucket for the band with the caveat that there was "No Maxium." No maximum indeed.

Jenny Scheinman is in residency every Tuesday in Park Slope and you owe it to yourself to check her out... there are few better.

Aaron Goldberg is playing this week at the Jazz Standard

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