Special Issues » Savannah Music Festival Issue

Savannah Music Festival: Jenny Scheinman's Mischief & Mayhem

Project blends elements of jazz, Americana, and trance music

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IT’S NOT OFTEN that a show cancellation brings good news. But the Savannah Music Festival had serendipity on its side when Juana Molina had to cancel a double bill with Margaret Glaspy this Friday night—and the Festival was able to book Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief & Mayhem instead.

No disrespect to the adventurous Argentinian singer/composer Molina, but those in the know will tell you it was at least an even trade.

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The extremely versatile violinist Jenny Scheinman is one of those musicians that other musicians universally hold in high regard. She has worked across a plethora of a genres with top-tier musicians such as Bill Frisell, Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed and Norah Jones. 

In addition to her solo work and other projects, since 2011 Scheinman has recorded and toured with Mischief & Mayhem, a supergroup of sorts featuring guitarist Nels Cline of Wilco, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and renowed drummer Jim Black.

Together, she and Mischief & Mayhem play a brand of (mostly) all-instrumental music which combines a jazz sensibility with the rough edge of rock ‘n’ roll and a technologically and aurally experimental vibe and spirit that mixes Scheinman’s native California with the New York City where she really cut her teeth musically.

“For a group that’s often called, quote, a jazz band, we’re more like a little rock band,” Scheinman tells Connect of Mischief & Mayhem, who she describes as a quartet of old friends.

“But we also have clear melodies, and sort of a tension between recklessness and exuberance. We have suspense and excitement merging, and tones and loops cycling around,” she says.

“It’s mesmerizing, and hopefully transporting. Transforming, even,” says Scheinman. “Even though much of what we do is very exploratory, it’s accessible. Mischief & Mayhem has become a loved band.”

She says the band “has its bones closely tied to its roots in folk and fiddle music. But in Mischief & Mayhem we might also do it with a west African beat, with a different groove. But the form is there.”

A prolific songwriter, Scheinman says she lets her subconscious be a part of the process.

“When writing songs, there are moment when it sounds so generic to me. I let it all sit for awhile. I look for the songs that after six months are still stuck in my mind. That’s how I write everything – I let my subconscious process it for awhile.”

As a trained violinist who also proudly refers to herself a “fiddle player,” Scheinman has worked with a wide variety of musicians, from the jazz tradition—where almost everyone reads music—to the Appalachian tradition—where almost no one reads music—to most everything in between.

“Bil Frisell, for example, he likes to read the music, he likes to see the notes. He wants to see something to get it fully into his system.”

As a more general observation, Scheinman points out that, “Playing with musicians who only learn by ear might take longer – but when they get it, they really have it,” she says.

“A jazz musician in New York might look at the charts and immediately grasp what’s going on, but when they’re done they go off to another gig.”

In contrast to Scheinman’s work with Mischief & Mayhem is her most recent album, 2017’s Here On Earth.

In this remarkable collection of songs, Scheinman collaborates with stalwarts like Frisell, Danny Barnes, Robbie Fulks, and Robbie Gjersoe.

When you release an album of fiddle tunes steeped in the rural Appalachian folk tradition and get glowing reviews in jazz and pop publications, you know it’s more than just an homage.

Indeed, the album is so dynamic in part because it was originally a live performance soundtrack to the film Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, comprising 70-year-old archival footage shot by the legendary H. Lee Waters.

“Fiddle tunes are really stable, solid ditties that can be treated different ways,” Scheinman says lovingly. “They are cyclical dance tunes that can all be played by a great fiddler. Here On Earth is an overt, conscious effort to sort of gather all those thoughts.”

Saying she wrote “a million tunes” initially for that record, they were of course paired down to the 15 tracks that were released.

“We didn’t realize at first that these tunes could translate so well to a band with no fiddle background,” she says of the collaboration with musicians from many different traditions.

“Bill isn’t what you would call a ‘picker.’ He doesn’t necessarily know all the repertoire. But he blows the roof off, with his much more open approach,” says Scheinman.

But for Jenny Scheinman, it’s always the song itself that matters most.

“In Mischief & Mayhem, we’ve all had a long history with songwriters and songs. Nels of course everyone knows and respects from his work with Wilco. Todd has also done an amazing amount of great work with so many people,” she says.

But drummer Black, she says, “is the most mischievous. I was going through the charts looking at Jim’s notes. There’s all this writing in the margins where he’s actually writing the sounds, things like, ‘Meow. Dit-Dit. Wang.’ It’s hilarious.”

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