Essentials: Jenny Scheinman ‘The Littlest Prisoner’ Album Review

Not just good, but great. And not just great, but startling in its emotional depth and musical purity. That pretty well sums up The Littlest Prisoner from Jenny Scheinman, well-known in jazz circles for her lovely violin tone and her collaboration with such luminaries as Norah Jones, Paul Motian, as well as her touring work with jazz virtuoso guitarist Bill Frisell and the tastiest drummer around these days, Brian Blade. Here the latter two back her up on Prisoner, her third album devoted to Jenny’s vocal talents.

Whereas her first album consisted of great covers from songwriters such as Lucinda Williams and Jimmy Reed, Mississippi John Hurt, and Tom Waits, she also gave us a taste of her penchant for Americana songwriting with four original tunes.

A follow-up album of instrumental pieces entitled Crossing the Field was released a few months later. Four years on, the album Mischief & Mayhem, featuring her quartet with Wilco guitarist Nells Cline, bassist Sickafoose and drummer Jim Black, arrived as an independent release on her own label. This new album comes from the mighty Sony Masterworks powerhouse, which probably means Scheinman will be gifted with some heavy-duty publicity. She deserves it, and more. In fact, there’s been no better album released in the first half of this year in the Americana genre.

First off, there’s her voice; you won’t forget it once you hear it. She combines the emotional sincerity of Laura Nyro, Karla Bonoff, Bonnie Raitt and any dozen others you care to name – but with the polish, the nuance and the articulation of a precise classical performer.

And with the opening track ‘Brother’, she demonstrates a flair for songwriting that we need badly in the contemporary music scene. This one song, about the contrast between romantic love and brotherly love, is destined to be a classic and demonstrates that not only is there room for a fierce intelligence in songwriting, but that those of us who bemoan the state of current music just might be dead wrong: the best still can rise to the top and excite our passions for true talent.

The album is bookended with the closer ‘Sacrifice’, an extended meditation on life and death supported by Frisell’s inimitable guitar work, Scheinman’s own scintillating violin and Blade’s quiet but elegantly powerful drumming.

In between Scheinman treats us to an eclectic approach, incorporating jazz, folk, Irish melody, roots music and several other seemingly disparate elements as well as moods. She’s a complex and literate individual, no less so than another Americana stalwart that comes to mind: Gillian Welch. But if you can imagine Welch or Kate and Anna McGarrigle emanating from the jazz clubs of Brooklyn and San Francisco (Scheinman’s roots), then you might gain some insight as to the range and force of Jenny’s musicality.

There’s not a filler track on this record. Be prepared to use your play and repeat function on a daily basis for the next several weeks while the album seeps into your soul. Jenny Scheinman is that good.