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Live At Yoshi's

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Album Review

Violinist Jenny Scheinman was a full-fledged Left Coaster before transplanting herself to the fertile artistic ground of Brooklyn, so it was only natural that she return to her former home turf to record her first CD as a leader at Oakland's venerable Yoshi's nightspot. On this debut release she seems to have emerged fully formed as a bandleader and compelling soloist. But given Scheinman's extensive experience preceding the September 1999 recording date, playing with everyone from Rova Saxophone Quartet to Charming Hostess, her skillfulness shouldn't be surprising. And the other members of the quartet — the unbeatable rhythm team of drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Todd Sickafoose together with guitarist Dave MacNab — are uniquely attuned to her music and the evocative way she makes the violin sing. If one views "jazz" as a genre that by definition should offer opportunities for unbridled improvisation, then Live at Yoshi's might be considered somewhat "jazzier" than the subsequent Tzadik label releases on which Scheinman beautifully celebrates and pays homage to her Jewish heritage, drawing on the deep traditions of Eastern European and Mediterranean folk musics. Yet the violinist also refuses to be pigeonholed by typical jazz vocabularies, resulting in a far-reaching recording that broadly fits within jazz but also crosses boundaries into country, folk, rock, blues, and even classical music. And with a smaller band than the quintets featured on her Tzadik CDs — not to mention the live setting — the musicians can and do stretch out, playing both exuberantly and tastefully. The band brings the dynamic level down to a near whisper at times, and then Scheinman leads the ensemble into high-energy territory with a masterful conception of pacing, steadfastly holding back from revealing the full range of her talents before ultimately cutting loose.

Highlights are many, beginning at the get-go as Scheinman takes her sweet time on "Junius Elektra," drawing long notes over the band's steady pulse and slowly building into a lovely theme, adding wordless vocals that impart the mood of a conjurer's chant. "Sensitive New Age Caveman" escalates into a free jazz workout for MacNab, fueled by Amendola's rolling and thunderous drumwork that somehow leads to a gentle and understated denouement. "Stumble Light" has a killer arrangement, as Scheinman introduces the melody beneath MacNab's freewheeling solo before the violin and guitar eventually team up in a joint statement of the theme (great arco work from Sickafoose at the conclusion, too). A choogling exercise in chicken-pickin' country-funk, "25 and 2525" maintains an expansive Americana feel; Scheinman pulls out the double stops and octave harmonics like the finest of bluegrass players, eliciting applause from the assembled jazzers who must have momentarily felt like discarding their berets in favor of ten-gallon hats. But Scheinman's "country" isn't retro redneck stuff — the Mahavishnu Orchestra's "Open Country Joy" is a more appropriate antecedent than anything from the world of redneck country-rock, even as Amendola skitters through a barnyard full of percussive embellishments during a pizzicato bridge. Listening to this track, it's easy to see why Bill Frisell gave Scheinman the call-up to join his ensemble. The concluding "Through the Dark" presents the quartet at its very best, stretching out, grooving on a 9/8 vamp, Sickafoose laying down a strong but limber foundation, MacNab's chordal embellishments defining variations in the harmonic landscape, and Amendola driving everything forward with clearly articulated and dynamic percussion as Scheinman swoops and glides over the top.

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