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Jenny Scheinman Showcases Vocal Compositions on 'The Littlest Prisoner'

  • Katherine Cole

Jenny Scheinman's "The Little Prisoner" CD

Jenny Scheinman's "The Little Prisoner" CD

Jenny Scheinman first gained national attention in 2003 as a jazz performer, when she was voted the #1 Rising Star violinist for three years running in DownBeat Magazine’s Critics’ polls. Today, she’s collaborated with artists ranging from Lou Reed to Norah Jones and has released eight CDs of her own. Scheinman recently released her second CD of mainly vocal compositions, "The Little Prisoner."

The songs on “The Littlest Prisoner,” Scheinman’s eighth record - but only the second to feature her singing - are ones she toured with before taking them into the studio. While she was impatient to make another record, she says, for her, it’s important to first try out the songs before an audience. And while it’s thrilling to play them in public for the first time, it’s also very challenging because her songs are often so personal.

“Things are half done until you play them for people," she said. "I get songs to the point where I think they’re probably okay, they’re probably good, but until I get a response and feel the character with a group of people in a performance, I don’t really know it.”

The songs on “The Littlest Prisoner” started as personal stories, but as they evolved, Scheinman says the characters took on lives of their own and stopped being about her. For example, she wrote the title track while she was pregnant and suffering from a very high fever. Unable to take any medication, she sat in an icy bath, hoping the cold water would bring her fever down. “The Littlest Prisoner” was originally the baby trapped inside her feverish body. By the time the song made it into the studio, it was a totally different story.

“She’s a pregnant inmate and she’s speaking to her unborn child," Scheinman said. "She’s a toughie, she’s kind of raging at the world for the injustice of not being able to raise her child who will be taken away from the prison. But she’s also funny. She’s also telling her child about her life, she’s giving her child advice, she’s saying ‘I hope my girl’s got good feet and not too much charm.’ Which is sort of a way of saying don’t get into the trouble that I got into, which comes out in the later verses.”

“The Littlest Prisoner” also includes three instrumentals featuring her frequent collaborators from the jazz world: guitarist Bill Frissell and drummer Brian Blade. They were tricky to fit into the album, Scheinman says, without diluting its focus. She felt the tracks needed to be there, however, and describes them as “her chance to play.”

“When I’m singing, I have a hard time inserting myself into the song as well as a player," Scheinman said. "Because I feel like I’ve just been the sort of central lyrical focus. And to transfer then right into playing, I get tired of myself. But given a song that is just instrumental, it’s just such a delight to sail through those little melodies.”

Scheinman has two tours scheduled for this summer, one with Bill Frissell, the other supporting Bruce Cockburn.