16 May 2007

Review: Jenny Scheinman (30;2)

barbes (2), 14 May 2007

Art is uncomfortable. Not in some metaphoric way, but actually physically uncomfortable. Making it: I'm guessing; but appreciating it: almost always. You can't look at the Mona Lisa from your couch. Concerts are much the same -- even when there are seats, they aren't exactly Laz-E-Boys... even in the poshest theaters, there's that element of discomfort. Most of the shows I go to have me standing and that's right where I was Monday night: standing in a packed Barbes, shifting my weight from foot to foot, waiting for the music to begin. The room, tiny as can be, was stuffed like a Brooklyn burrito; the occasion was a special Jenny Scheinman show. And let me tell you, it was uncomfortable. With the weather actually acting its age, the warm May evening air permeated the room. It was the kind of atmosphere that makes you appreciate how amazing the human body is -- that 40 people could generate that much heat in a short amount of time. I believe the word. They announced that they were recording the show and thus they turned the noisy air conditioner off and almost immediately I could feel the sweat rolling down my back.

But just because art is uncomfortable doesn't mean the converse is true. Not to worry, this was Jenny -- a musician's musician, an artist in the truest sense. You only have to look at the caliber of musicians that seemed all too happy to join her in the oven to make her music come alive. You want artistry? How about: Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, Kenny Wolleson, Doug Weiselman, Ron Miles....?!? These cats were assembled to record Scheinman's next album this week and were supposed to play a warm-up gig at Tonic. This isn't the first "supposed to have been at Tonic" show for me, but life goes on and what would have been a nice, warm intimate evening in the Lower East Side became a cozy, cramped, hot one in a room in Brooklyn that probably isn't the size of the stage at Tonic. In addition to the announced band of 7 musicians, Jenny also recruited a full-on string quartet bringing the total to 11! Like a fancy schmancy prep school, the teacher-to-pupil ration was incredibly high and as a result, the lessons were particularly illuminating.

Yes, this ensemble made art. Art of the most wonderful kind. From the moment they started tuning their instruments you could feel it was going to be special. The notes seemed to relish in the dank haze, condensing in the air and forming clouds of music that enveloped the entire room. You could call them nothing but an orchestra with Jenny Scheinman conducting and playing 1st violin. On top of her wonderful playing and intense energy, she's also quite a band leader. It's not trivial to navigate such a eleventet and make something beautiful out of it, but song after song that's just what she did.
Ah, those songs. You can see why she'd settle for nothing but the best. Not that there were extravagant guitar parts for Frisell or piano parts for Moran (both of whom could handle your best with one hand tied behind their backs), but Jenny obviously cares deeply about this music and each note needed to be handled with the utmost care. In fact, there were few solos all around, the musicians moved as a unit, or, more often as several smaller units complementing each other. It wasn't until 5 or 6 numbers into the set that we even got a violin solo. Instead, she chose to amplify herself above the all-star cast, the string quartet became a quintet with Jenny leading them like an squadron of F-16's, an attack formation of jet planes zig-zagging through insanely delicious music.

The songs don't quite have names yet, so we were treated to such compositions as "2" and "6." That second tune was a brilliant orchestration that at times brought to mind the ecstatic chaos of Frank Zappa's big band epics of "The Grand Wazoo" era. From there they traveled over various tracts. There was an incredibly funky number with bassist Tim Luntz gluing into Kenny Wolleson and laying down some esoteric grooving while the horns and strings laid down interlocking melodies. Later in the evening, Jenny was all-out fiddling, but not in a hoedown bluegrass way, rather in some glorious, goosebumps ecstasy. Jenny deferred to her band almost to a fault, allowing them to break off into subgroups throughout the set. But what a treat: Ron Miles, Frisell and Wolleson skittering through an flabbergastingly high-paced romp was a definite highlight. If you catch Jenny on any night, there's no telling what she'll play: roaring 20's jazz, singing bluegrass, klez-tinged chamber music.... this set seemed to have a little bit of all of that (well, no vocals, but still).

I'd have to give Kenny the MVP of the band, you just can't do the kinds of things Jenny was getting these 11 to do without someone like Wolleson holding down the fort. Drummers are typically some weird dudes, and he's no different. Wedged into the corner of the room, sunglasses, flopping around on his stripped down kit (basically a snare and a bass drum and a cymbal or two), wily peppering in some percussion whenever he felt it was needed. Everyone was spot on, though. One song saw Moran breaking away and just sort of soloing down the side as the other 10 locked into something related but different. Weiselman always seemed at right angles to the rest of them, breaking in, ever-so-gently with some avant licks from his bass clarinet. The range of styles from Weiselman to Miles pure-of-heart coronet to the upscale string quartet to Frisell's unfocused wisps of guitar to Jason Moran's gorgeous bopping.... somehow Jenny got it all to work and made all these forces do her bidding. Of course, she shined above them all, as it should be when it's her music, but recalling the last Frisell show I saw, maybe how it would have been anyway. Every year there seems to be a musician that bubbles up from all the rest for me, like they have made it their mission to blow me away time and time again. With the announcement that Jenny will be playing a free show at Prospect Park, it may just be her.

At some point, the heat just became unbearable and they turned the air conditioning on for the minute or so between numbers. It was a tease, for sure, but a welcome one. At that rate, I could have stood there, drowning in my own perspiration, for hours and hours. It was art at the highest degree, live music at its most pure. Of course, it had to end, there was a late set and the room needed to be cleared. The hour had passed much too quickly, and now I'm left with the terrible discomfort of waiting. Waiting for them to record the album and mix it and whatever else they need to do before it gets into my hands and, most importantly, back into my ears. Hurry up!

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