Jenny Scheinman is best known as one of the great violinists in jazz, both as a bandleader and as a collaborator with guitar great Bill Frisell. But she also writes vivid, lyrical Americana songs. Her latest release, The Littlest Prisoner – streaming at Spotify – harks back to her eclectic, pensive self-titled 2008 album. Producer Tucker Martine, who took such a richly layered approach to Tift Merritt’s Still Not Home, does the very opposite here, matching the spareness of Scheinman’s previous Americana album. Most of the tracks feature just Frisell’s guitar and Brian Blade’s drums. She’s playing the album release show at le Poisson Rouge on June 30 at 7:30 PM; advance tix are $20 and highly recommended.
Wariness and unease counterbalance the summery sway of the music throughout these songs: Scheinman is always watching her back. The opening track, Brother, is a catchy, wary, slowly unwinding ballad in the Lucinda Williams vein, but with better vocals, Scheinman challenging a guy to be as solid and protective as a family member would be.
Run Run Run is not the Velvets classic but a shuffling bluegrass tune that contrasts Frisell’s signature, lingering guitar with Blade’s shuffle beat and Scheinman’s jaunty violin. It makes a good segue with the spare, Appalachian-flavored violin/guitar duet Thirteen Days.
The title track, Scheinman’s dedication to her then-unborn daughter, makes another uneasy juxtaposition between a lithely dancing, funk-flavored tune and a lyric that contemplates the perils of parenthood. By contrast, My Old Man looks back to Linda Ronstadt’s 70s ventures into Americana-tinged hippie-pop, but with purist production values. Likewise, Houston has the feel of a Lowell George ballad, but again with a spiky, sparse arrangement: Scheinman doesn’t waste a note anywhere.
She follows the brief, wistful Debra’s Waltz with Just a Child, a vivid reminiscence of a northern California back-to-the-land hippie upbringing: as she tells it, a bale of cocaine landed offshore there at least once. She winds up the album with the dancing, funky, bluesy violin instrumental Bent Nail and then its best track, the hypnotic, brooding, Velvet Underground-tinged Sacrifice. Once again, Scheinman reasserts that her prowess as an Americana artist matches her achievements in jazz. Fans of Laura Cantrell, Gillian Welch and other top-tier Americana songwriters will love this.