Jenny Scheinman, '12 Songs' (2005)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Jenny Scheinman was hardly fresh off the boxcar when she released 12 Songs, in the fall of 2005. A violinist and composer known for bringing an air of rusticity to the most modern settings, she was in her early 30s, with an already-strong track record behind Bill Frisell and others; this was the fourth album under her name.

For many observers, though, 12 Songs represented a breakthrough. Scheinman made the album with a septet that included Frisell and longtime compadre Ron Miles on cornet, as well as keyboardist and accordionist Rachelle Garniez, clarinetist Doug Wieselman and others. The writing is spare, yet full of emotional color; it feels lived-in, unguarded. Its affinities with Frisell’s music are obvious — listen back as far as This Land, from 1994 — but don’t feel at all calculated. This is the music that Scheinman was truly feeling, and it pointed the way forward for her in many respects.

A few years later, when Scheinman was officially branching out as a singer-songwriter, I wrote a profile for the NY Times, speaking with her about a distinctly rural childhood along the California coast. For the piece, I also solicited some thoughts from Frisell, who had this to say:

A song isn’t just a sort of mathematical puzzle for her; it has a real emotional meaning. She can play out or free or whatever, but you always hear that center, that melody thing, which is so important.

You hear that quality on 12 Songs, just as you do on Scheinman’s more recent musical output, including Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, a film-and-music presentation that I was fortunate enough to see at the 2018 Big Ears Festival. She is currently on tour with drummer Allison Miller, not only in Miller’s band Boom Tic Boom but also in a jointly led project called Parlour Game. Her artistry runs like a clear beam through whatever setting; for me, 12 Songs is where it first came into perfect focus.

Purchase 12 Songs at Cryptogramophone, or stream it at Apple Music or Spotify.