Jazz is back at SPAC

Violinist-singer Jenny Scheinman is poised to emerge as a star on the jazz scene, and she'll be amon
Jenny Scheinman
Jenny Scheinman

Big stars in the amphitheater, breakout stars in the gazebo — that’s the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Saturday and Sunday. This year’s biggest band is the reunited fusion pioneers Return to Forever, while Jenny Scheinman breaks out in the gazebo as both violinist and singer.

Last month, she released both “Crossing the Field,” a lush album (her fifth) of jazz instrumentals and “Jenny Scheinman,” a singer-songwriter album (her first) — and she may both sing and play on Saturday in the gazebo.

“I feel like I’ve done the reverse of what Dylan did,” she mused on her move from respected New York jazz instrumentalist to singer likely to reach a wider audience. Speaking by phone from her parents’ rustic home (no electricity, no running water) in northern California, she said she began performing there at age 4 in the area’s only bar. “It was a town that didn’t have any outside entertainment — so it entertained itself,” she said.

Suzuki piano training, lessons on fiddle and violin, chamber music camps and fiddle festivals tuned up her playing skills, but she was still terrified of driving, at 18, into the big city, San Francisco, to audition for Dan Hicks.

Freihofer’s Jazz Festival

WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs

WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, beginning at noon

HOW MUCH: Saturday in amphitheater, $62.50 adults (lawn $41.50), $52 children (lawn $5). Sunday in amphitheater, $56 adults (lawn $41.50), $49 children (lawn $5).

MORE INFO: 584-9330 or www.spac.org

She sang with her parents, back at the bar, and in a band at the University of California at Berkeley while earning her degree in English literature, but was a committed jazz violin instrumentalist on arriving in New York.

“I was fairly obsessed and wanted to study music, passionately,” she said. “Much of what I was interested in was in New York; the players I was interested in were in New York.”

She continued: “Part of the reason that I wanted to play jazz is that you get the opportunity to hear so much and to make choices about it and nail down in real time exactly what it is you’re hearing, rather than just playing existing melodies.”

Playing with the Big Apple Circus paid the rent. She paid for lessons by busking. “You can make $50 an hour to practice and nobody yells at you.” She left home three hours early for lessons and practiced in subway stations. “I was hoping to make enough money to pay for the lesson,” she said, “but also practicing the pieces that I was supposed to practice.”

A weeklong Village Vanguard gig with guitarist Bill Frisell began a career-building flurry. “I was out all the time, seeing and meeting people, all night, every night, for a long time,” she said.

She didn’t sing much until musician friends urged her to. “Norah Jones, who was a good friend of mine, really liked my singing and kept bugging me about it, and finally offered to be in my band,” said Scheinman. “That was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

Singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell and guitarist Tony Scherr also encouraged her. Scherr produced “Jenny Scheinman” originally as a birthday gift for her father, then urged her to release it as an album of vocal songs. “It just registered that peopled were liking [my singing] and I started realizing how much I liked it.”

On Saturday at the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival, she’ll mostly be playing instrumentals, with bassist Ben Allison and guitarist Steve Cardenas, a cozy trio format sparser than the lush chamber orchestra arrangements on “Crossing the Field,” which she has called “my extravaganza.”

Noting that she had surprised everyone, even herself, by singing a Jelly Roll Morton song recently at a Zagreb jazz festival, she said, “Some jazz fanatics get freaked out when you start singing, but — who knows? — maybe I’ll sing one or two.”

Big reunion

If Scheinman is the freshest discovery of the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival, the event also features many artists with long local track records.

The much-anticipated (ever since guitarist John McLaughlin told this writer last September this was in the works) Return to Forever reunion could have been assembled here through time travel: Keyboardist Chick Corea played Proctors last summer with banjoist Bela Fleck and a few summers ago at this festival with three different bands. Drummer Lenny White has played at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall with Schenectady pianist/singer Rick Della Ratta. Bassist Stanley Clarke played the Van Dyck in a band that amazingly featured another bassist. Guitarist Al DiMeola has played The Egg several times.

The biggest buzz may be about Return to Forever, but trumpeter Terence Blanchard is heart and soul of the festival, playing “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” developed from his poignant score for Spike Lee’s film “When the Levees Broke.” He introduced some of this music this spring with the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars at Proctors and gave a tremendous full performance of it at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last month with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

In addition to his Sunday set at the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival, he also leads his quintet at Skidmore on Tuesday in a free show — all this happening between scoring sessions for Spike Lee’s new film “Miracle At St. Anna’s,” Blanchard’s 42nd film project and 13th with Lee.

Playing double duty, with sets in both the amphitheater and the gazebo on Saturday at the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival is another New Orleans star and recent hit of his hometown Jazz Fest, the precocious 21-year-old pianist Jonathan Batiste with his trio.

Not yet 30, soul singer Ryan Shaw projects the same freshness as Batiste, and even more command. He sings on Saturday, after releasing his towering debut album “This is Ryan Shaw” last year and touring with Van Halen.

On Sunday, saxophonist Charles Lloyd leads his New Quartet, adding pianist Jason Moran to the powerful, atmospheric trio he led at The Egg last year.

Singer Dianne Reeves has sung many stunning shows here, including Troy Savings Bank Music Hall showcases and a headline set at last year’s Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival. In other words, saxophonist Boney James and guitarist/singer Jonathan Butler will have to be sharp to follow her. So will veteran Philly soulmen the O’Jays, who close the festival on Sunday.

Festival performers

Saturday in the amphitheater (in order of appearance): the Jonathan Batiste Trio; Conrad Herwig’s Latin Side of Miles, Coltrane & Shorter; Ryan Shaw; Saxophone Summit featuring Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman and Ravi Coltrane; Chris Botti; Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Red Earth: A Malian Journey; and Return to Forever featuring Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Al DiMeola and Lenny White.

Saturday in the gazebo (in this order): Andrea Tierra, the Jonathan Batiste Trio, Hayes Greenfield’s Jazz-a-ma-Tazz (children’s program), and Jenny Scheinman.

Sunday in the amphitheater (in this order): Rachael Price; Terence Blanchard; the Charles Lloyd New Quartet; Dianne Reeves, Boney James & Jonathan Butler, and the O’Jays.

Sunday in the gazebo (in this order): 3D; Rachael Price; Hayes Greenfield’s Jazz-a-ma-Tazz (children’s program); and the Brubeck Brothers

Categories: Life and Arts

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