Jenny Scheinman is a well-regarded jazz violinist known for her work with guitarists like Nels Cline and Bill Frissell. In mid-April Scheinman joined the Bill Frissell Sextet for a few dates at the Village Vanguard. Frissell’s band included Ron Miles (cornet), the great Don Byron (clarinets and tenor saxophone), Scheinman (violin), Kenny Wollesen (drums), and Tony Scherr (bass). I attended a set that was like sitting in a cloud of glossy starlings: blue-black yet bright and sparkling, moody yet effervescent. Frissell builds song nests by slipping into the crevices of standards and pop tunes, finding the inner harmonies and tonalities and inviting the other musicians to move into the space with their own glistening shards or woody splinters to fill out the melodic structure. The music moves from edifice building atmospherics to pointedly defined solo flights and back.
Scheinman thrives in such settings because she is a thoughtful, exciting improviser. She calls it practiced intuition: an ability to create music that simultaneously touches traditional ideas and veers into new directions away from jazz nomenclature. She is a skilled, patient, lyrical violinist, ever plotting, not sawing the fiddle with her bow, but searching it for dramatic responses. Scheinman’s performances are physical explorations too -- she dances as she plays.
If Frissell’s sextet was a vital, billowing murmuration of starlings, then Scheinman’s trio work with Nasheet Waits and Jason Moran is an exaltation of larks. At the beginning of June Scheinman played a few dates with these other stars of the jazz scene. When they performed recently at Barbés, the Brooklyn bar where Scheinmen plays a set every Tuesday she’s in New York, the audience, packed into the tiny backroom, experienced the pleasures of three larks chirruping in their own styles, rising up to find a musical nexus, young masters delicately refining their aesthetics. Moran and Waits turn Scheinman’s compositions from atmospheric elaborations into compact, sturdier structures – they make her songs swing. On “Little Calypso,” for instance, Waits evoked the rhythms and tones of the steel drum on his snare and kick drum while Moran and Scheinman propelled the melody into a groove, flavoring it with spices from Stuff Smith’s “Calypso” and Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.”
As if being a fine violinist were not enough, Scheinman sings too, her voice a thorny and compelling instrument. In her late April New York debut as a singer, Scheinman played and crooned country jams, folk ballads, gypsy music, and the blues at Marion’s Marquee Lounge on the Bowery. Though she was backed by a band of good jazz musicians (Scherr [vocals/guitar], Tim Luntzel [bass], and Wollesen [drums]), Scheinman left off jazz. Scheinman claims that she can’t sing jazz to save her life. But her singing is clearly influenced by her improvisational abilities. When she sings in her craggy, smoky voice, especially on songs of woe or quiet desperation, Scheinman shapes sentiment as if she were playing her violin. In fact, her voice sometimes mimics the reedy tone of the instrument, setting up resonant conversations when she answers her singing with some fine soloing. Scherr’s rollicking guitar adds bluster to the sheen of the violin and his vocal harmonies drops in low, hard compliments. Scheinman’s vocal range doesn’t, and may never, match that of her violin but the emotional quality of her singing stretches toward the heights of her play and listening to a lark’s elastic song is always pleasurable.
Female jazz singers are often presented as ingénues or seductresses. It’s an old marketing idea cinched by old problems about sexuality, gender, and artistic performance. Their photos, buffed to luster, dress disc covers, drawing listeners into the layers of the musical and vocal performances with come-ons, invitations to gentle, embracing kinds of love. Once inside, the voice guides the audience, teaching us to listen more precisely with each track, educating us about the emotional weight a harmonic leap can carry, but the musicianship only wins its stage after the seduction begins. In keeping with this, the opening track is usually a wistful expression of dream worlds and dreamy love or a hopeful communiqué of desire. But some choose other routes.
On the cover of Somi’s Red Soil in My Eyes (World Village 2007) you will see the glorious beauty refusing the expected come-on, refusing to seduce, her eyes cast downward, her brow pensive.
And the first, deep cut, “Ingele,” rejects a subtle introductory move, disseminating a whole musicological education in four minutes. Blending American jazz sensibilities, Afro-Latino percussion, Afro-pop guitar licks, and Western harmonies, the song tells a melancholic story of a love’s tattered ends, the self-questioning, the wishes for reconciliation, and the final turning away from the once-beloved. Though Somi sings many of the subsequent tracks in English, Red Soil opens in Swahili -- she uses the language’s ingrained melodies and lyricism to press textured East African vocal techniques into the diasporic mix.
While the song begins with Somi’s cooing, lilting scat and Herve Samb’s plucked guitar riffs, Toru Dodo’s chord blocking on the piano, reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, signals both the structure of the melody and the obstacles rising between the lovers. The gorgeous backing vocals (Cole Williams, Chande Rule, Rhian Ayanna, Adrienne Nyamsi) lend Somi dark-edged support. Her natural soprano swings easily into the alto range, allowing her to chart the undulations of her narrative with tonal shifts while the band maintains the song’s structure. The bridge lends the best instance of Somi’s swan diving shifts: Dodo and Samb drop out letting Somi sing over and against the roiling mixture of Vashon Johnson’s thudding bass line, Thierry Arpino's rim knocks and crashing ride cymbal, and Daniel Moreno's talking drum and popping cow bell, a mirror of the singer's conflicted interior – hoping simultaneously for reconnection to and release from her lover.
Introducing Red Soil with a narrative of a love’s demise sung in Swahili is a gamble because it demands that listeners forgo traditional notions of jazz performance and the expected seductions of female jazz singers. But “Ingele” is an imposing, dynamic payoff, steering clear of candied ingratiation while detailing the musical and lyrical plot-points of the remaining tracks, forwarding jazz aesthetics before marketing. "Ingele" impresses though it’s not even the best tune on a fantastic collection of original songs, all penned by Somi.
Seeing Somi perform one notices several things immediately: she is tall, elegant, and finely figured.
Her big, flashy smile, however, disguises her intensity, the key to her stage presence. At Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Club, where she and her band played two sold-out sets in April, Somi celebrated the release of Red Soil by blowing the doors off of the theater. Overcoming a nagging cold, Somi’s voice was huge and round, she sang with joy and humor, and the band, who had no choice but to match her force, augmented her with delicious, inventive accompaniment and pointed improvising.
Somi’s songwriting is about spiritual, intellectual, and personal growth, about the power of the voice to express estrangement, desire, empowerment, and devotion. Listening to her perform live, watching the kinetic links she shares with her audiences, I was reminded of the end of Hank Lewis’ powerful, impressionistic story of jazz and self-consciousness, “Rossonian Days,” in which he writes:
And from there to here came the groove that fills your head. A sound that needs no reason to be, no story, no event, no particular year. Just the knowledge that somebody may be out there, just beyond where you begin to hear your song drift past hearing, out to where there’s a brother or sister in the audience, down the block, in the next state, on the next plantation plot; maybe nobody you love, but somebody who came from where your people came from, and with just an utterance there may be an answer back, like any right-on, praise-the-lord-pass-the peas, I-heard-that, call-and-response, because out there, they know that yes:
This voice comes from somebody, and it tells the story of who I am . . . It is my language. It is the story. It pushes against the hard morning of yet another day, and it is mine. It is mine.
I Got Somebody in Staunton (2005)
Feist’s voice is trained for gymnastics – small, muscular, lithe, swift, precise, and sometimes profoundly graceful. She sings of delight and remorse but not of ennui; she refuses angst’s oppressions. On “Let It Die,” the title track from her 2005 disc, Feist pushes past love’s bitter finish without nostalgia:
The saddest part of a broken heartRecognizing a self-inflicted betrayal doesn’t produce anger, it gives rise instead to a shoulder-shrugging, head-shaking awareness of love’s terrible requirement: for affection’s pleasures we deny our better instincts. Singing over a vibraphone and a shuffling funeral dirge rhythm, Feist’s voice is mournful but never pitiful. Yet, the slight quiver in her delivery makes you feel as though she’s convincing herself as much as her lover of the affair’s ending.
Isn’t the ending so much as the start
The tragedy starts from the very first spark
Losing your mind for the sake of your heart
Feist’s new disc, The Reminder (2007), is anchored in its middle by another song about self-deception and evaporating love, the sparsely arranged soul song “The Limit to Your Love.” Feist opens the track with a tension-creating string section buzzing like a swarm of slow-moving bees over a high-hat clap-tap combination with the kick drum and bass keeping the bottom beat. She pokes out the edges of the melody on the guitar, dusting it with a murmur: “Clouds part/ Just to give us a little sun.” Nearly a minute into the song Chilly Gonzales’ bursting four-step soul chord progression on piano finally breaks the taut buzz, shoving the song from its ethereal opening into an earthy truth:
There’s a limit to your loveFeist’s strange first verse brings in unnatural images of waters in slow motion and waterless geographies to describe a love that by its limits undefines itself. Feist builds her poetic riffs on top of a Bessie Smith-like motif of careless love as a reminder to her lover that she might seek solace, like a blueswoman, down on the road.
Like a waterfall in slow motion
Like a map with no ocean
There’s a limit to your love
There’s a limit to your care
So carelessly there
Is it truth or dare
There’s a limit to your care
Though not suffused with James Jamerson's bass lines, Marvin Gaye’s huge voice, or his thickly layered arrangements, “The Limit To Your Love” makes loving references to the longing ache of Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, especially songs like “Come Get To This,” “Distant Lover,” and “Just To Keep You Satisfied.” Like Gaye, for instance, Feist stacks her voice on multiple tracks to create harmonizing, Motown-styled, 60s girl-group inspired backing-vocals that call out for her direct, pain-struck responses. Feist’s chorus plays up the conflict between her heart’s desires and her mind’s wariness:
I love I love I loveComing out of the chorus Feist eschews the perfunctory guitar solo of pop music for some mysterious vocal warbling and ululation while the vibraphone, flute, mallet-struck tom-tom, and piano rise up in the mix – a break from the heartache, it's the return of the ethereal. But the respite is only momentary – at the bridge, the top of a parabola, before the song rolls downward to its climax, a pair of cellos whittle a chord progression to a single note, a long-strung signal of an urgent, Smokey Robinsonian realization:
This dream of going upstream
I love I love I love
The trouble that you give me
I know I know I know
That only I can save me
I’ll go I’ll go I’ll go
Right down the road
I can’t read your smileInstead of asking the lover to “take a good look” at her face, Feist sees his disjointed visage, his smile is out of place. Her “Oh,” at the bridge’s end, is both an explicit recognition of the lover’s limits and a moan of regret. The doubled intelligence is heightened by Feist’s upward-swinging, syllable-emphasizing reading of the fourth line, building momentum for her knowing wail. Her voice rises into a major key before swooping down into the minor for the pick-up with the bass and piano. At the end of the second chorus Feist knows that she has no choice but to leave, to go “out on the road,” fulfilling her earlier teasing threat. Though the song ends in the huff of a spirit broken, the strings simmering now, Feist exits the space spurred by the knowledge that, unlike her beloved, there’s no limit to her love.
It should be written on your face
I’m piecing it together
There’s something out of place