Jenny Scheinman, a violinist, singer and composer who performed recently at the Village Vanguard, has crafted distinctive careers in two contrasting musical genres, progressing in both at an impressive pace.
Ms. Scheinman grew up in Petrolia, Calif. The daughter of two folk musicians, she played piano and violin as a youth and earned a degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley in 1995. She spent four years in the Bay Area as a professional musician before moving to New York 16 years ago. Quickly rising to the first rank of the city’s improvising musicians, she played her violin with such leading jazzmen as pianist Jason Moran and guitarist Bill Frisell.
In the early 2000s, she became an in-demand player on both the jazz and Americana scenes. She played with Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams and Norah Jones; and her jazz chops won her gigs ranging from Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks Orchestra to the Ben Allison Band. Her most notable gig was a weekly Tuesday evening engagement at Barbes in Brooklyn. It was there that she nurtured both sides of her musical personality, sometimes with high-profile guests. One evening Ms. Scheinman began her set by explaining “we are going to tell stories tonight, some with words, some without.” It’s an apt description of her career.
In 2005—encouraged by Ms. Jones, who employed Ms. Scheinman in her backing band on her debut recording, “Come Away With Me” (Blue Note, 2002)—Ms. Scheinman formed an ensemble to showcase her vocal talents; she has released two recordings as a folk singer. For most of the past two years, Ms. Scheinman, who is 42, has focused on her vocal career. Last year, she released “The Littlest Prisoner” (Sony Masterworks), in which she sings her own compositions. The folk recording features Mr. Frisell and drummer Brian Blade, two leading jazz musicians well known for infusing their work with Americana influences.
While the musical settings of “The Littlest Prisoner” are spare, Ms. Scheinman’s songs and titles are audacious. Messrs. Frisell and Blade are master colorists who accent the intimate arrangements so deftly that one never pines for keyboards or bass. And Ms. Scheinman isn’t afraid to place her work in long shadows. For instance, “Run Run Run” recalls many similarly titled pieces, from the Velvet Underground to Kelly Clarkson. “My Old Man” is also the title of songs by Joni Mitchell and by Rosanne Cash. But Ms. Scheinman’s songwriting holds its own among those famous names. The collection is a compelling series of vignettes about relationships, graced by her plaintive vocals and the superb backing from her bandmates.
That project followed time that Ms. Scheinman spent with her instrumental group Mischief & Mayhem, which released its own self-titled recording in 2012. The aptly named band featured ace guitarist Nels Cline and recalled the aggressive sound of early ’70s jazz rock.
July 21 saw the debut of Ms. Scheinman’s latest instrumental group at the Village Vanguard, where she performed through July 26. The band features Myra Melford on piano and harmonium, Doug Wieselman on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Rudy Royston on drums. Ms. Scheinman said the lineup’s absence of a bass appealed to her—not only highlighting the lower tones of the piano, the bass drum and bass clarinet, but allowing the bass’s timekeeping responsibilities to rotate among the band members.
Ms. Scheinman’s opening-night set was ambitious and often scintillating. Many of her compositions are built around tight staccato segments that allow for powerful group improvisations and contrast nicely with the long, fluid lines from her violin. An early high point: “American Dipper Female,” which appeared on her 2004 disc “Shalagaster” (Tzadik). At the club it featured Mr. Royston’s shimmering percussion and Ms. Melford’s percussive work on the innards of the piano. Later in the 90-minute set, the band did “Snowy Egret,” the title track from a recent recording by Ms. Melford. The gorgeous tune was effectively reworked, with all members of the band making stellar contributions. That rapport between the band members continued through the week and reached remarkable levels by Sunday night’s final set. The band’s cohesion was especially evident in material from “The Littlest Prisoner,” and it demonstrated that Ms. Scheinman is deftly bridging the gap between the different musical styles in her career.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.