September, 2001
JAZZWEST
SCOTT AMENDOLA'S MUSICAL ORBIT
By Sue Ann Roberts

Scott Amendola’s life as a drummer-about-town could induce vertigo.

The range of genres, arrangements, grooves, non-grooves, and the sheer number of players with whom he works can be dizzying. But sit, listen, and breathe in his very musical approach to his instrument, and the peripatetic blur changes to an utterly grounded focus which the senses accept without question. Amendola emits a creativity, adaptability and solidity that makes whatever music is underway more believable.

This quality is distributed across a pretty scary number of groups, tours and record dates. How does this guy glue it all together with such grace, fresh ideas and good vibes?

A Song By Any Other Name

The operating system that unifies Amendola’s approach to projects as diverse as folk, un-scored improvisation, groove music, standards and other musical adventures is deceptively simple: Play The Song.

Easy to say, yet a musical lifetime can be devoted to exploring the quest. A given song, or a passage in an improvisational flow, contains an essence that finds its richest expression when players focus on its unique elements – the rhythm, harmonic, melodic, textural and emotional potential that grows out of that essence. Complex or simple, dense or sparse, it can take years to find out how to give one’s musical self over to, in any given moment, playing the song. It appears Amendola’s musical evolution has been about this pursuit.

He started shedding in junior high and high school in the Jersey/New York area under an old-school jazz drummer, listened to everything from standards through through rock through the evolution of both forms, studied in Boston at Berklee, then settled in to work in the Bay Area in the early nineties.

In addition to touring and recording for several years with the Charlie Hunter Group, Amendola has worked with an amazing array of artists live and in the studio. The list includes jazz luminaries like Mingus alum Jack Walrath, as well as colleagues among the incredibly talented creative musicians who have been developing in this locale and are now moving into national and international arenas -- John Schott, Ben Goldberg, Adam Levy, Jenny Scheinman, Trevor Dunn, and more.

Amendola has also supported creative songwriters whose roots reach into the folk/rock-based world. And he is currently involved in some highly original sound-crafting with LA guitarist Nels Cline.

"I have this way of thinking that music is music, and it’s all the same. [laugh] That’s very debatable, and it’s one way to look at it. It comes from the fact that I grew up listening to so many different kinds of music."

What goes for genres also goes for what some say is a dichotomy between playing parts vs. improvising.

"Playing a part can feel as free as improvising, because, if there’s a song structure and a certain part makes musical sense, then it can be as satisfying as improvising, and as listening. I don’t mind repeating musical ideas when they make sense. So, if I’m improvising, I’m thinking melodies and interaction, and when I’m not improvising, I’m thinking the same way."

John Schott, an inventive guitarist and composer, has been playing with Amendola since his arrival on the Bay Area scene over seven years ago in projects that include Grammy-nominated TJ Kirk, the Snorkel sessions, ShufflePlay and more.

"As a composer I've known that he could read anything I'd put in front of him, that he would practice whatever needed to be practiced, would make very helpful suggestions in terms of the realization of the musical ideas, and would bring to the rehearsal and the performance a real positive energy. And someone who's capable of grooving so deeply makes my job easy. It's hard to sound bad when someone's so good.

"Also, with someone who grooves that hard and deeply," adds Schott, "you can't help but want to give that kind of attention to the groove yourself."

Ben Goldberg, a close colleague of both musicians and a deeply talented improviser on clarinet, agrees. "He's a remarkably resourceful, imaginative musician. Always very enthusiastic about what he's up to, and about participating in other people's projects. He brings just such a beautiful spirit to the music that I always find it an absolute pleasure to work with him."

A Label of His Own

Amendola released "Band" with the Scott Amendola Band in late '99 on his own label, Artofmyheart, with local producer Cookie Marenco. Amendola's originals and a couple of covers showcase the quintet's blend of voices -- the timbers of Dave MacNab's guitar sounds, Eric Crystal's sax tones and Jenny Scheinman's violin vocabulary.

Todd Sickafoose (bass) and Amendola hold the tapestry together with an intuitive synergy. The pocket is seamlessly in time, yet the net rhythmic effect is extremely breathable. Simple harmonic structures underscore arrangements that move fluidly through instrumental combinations and emotional exploration.

Amendola's broad tastes are in evidence, from the large-hipped, low-to-the-ground "57th St. Blues" to the contemplative, moody ballad in nine "Redlacquer Blue"; from the laid-back funk groove over a subtle meter pattern in "Slow Zig", to the wide-open arrhythmic passion of the anthem "Hymn." A bit of Bill Frisell sensibility shows up, with Scheinman's playing buoying the passages into the band’s unique territory. The Jimi Hendrix tune "Manic Depression" gets a laid-back treatment, nicely languishing in the elastic melodic line. Fela's African high-life tune is morphed into an improvisational instrumental in "This Is Sad."

Amendola’s constant musical exploration naturally makes him feel an urge to produce more music in the studio. The challenge is finding the time, but he plans record new material with the Amendola Band soon.

Have Kit Will Travel

Catching a few of Scott’s gigs within a short span of days is like walking through a doorway into an entire city of musicians. The path started off at Amendola’s Oakland home where he hosted a cozy solo bass house concert for long-time musical pal Trevor Dunn (now of Brooklyn). His personal connections weaving through the local music community was clearly evident. This confidence and warmth is a palpable part of what Amendola carries with him and unpacks at every gig along with his drums -- a smile, a readiness, practical creativity, and an intense musical energy.

At the iMusic space in Oakland, a new venture exploring live webcasting of concerts, The Scott Amendola Band opened for the Seattle trio Living Daylights with Jessica Lurie. Amendola’s set list wound its way through ever-morphing and thoroughly developed improvisations on original material, with album-mates Sickafoose on bass, Crystal on saxophones and MacNab on guitar.

Amendola crafted a lovely intro by using his hands on his traps skins with Crystal’s soprano, followed by a swinging traps solo moving into a Prime Time-ish guitar groove. Next came a ballad full of harmonic color with a graceful bass line in 9/4, creatively laid out by Sickafoose.

Amendola respects his bassist’s work immensely. "Todd Sickafoose is someone who can take a part, always go back to it, but really explore all the possibilities within that part. It’s a really challenging thing to do."

Next up was a full-on fusion piece, fast and dense, full with cymbals, the guitar and alto vibrating melodies in the same pitch range. The piece morphed into free time yet retained a fast tempo, with the guitar taking on a tamboura-like drone. Then came a slow Chicago-style blues, with a full range of alto tricks from Crystal, and MacNab’s guitar working in reverb.

"Hymn," a ballad with a deceptively simple melody, was dedicated to the recently deceased Billy Higgins, with rumbling mallets on the skins.

The following month, Amendola recorded in Seattle with Living Daylights’ Lurie. "It was a very fun record to make, some crazy meters. Not sure yet who will release it."

Cut from the cavernous space of iMusic to the intimate upstairs coffeehouse room at 50 Oak Street, Amendola, with Chris Kee on bass, supported Jane Selke’s talented songwriting and strong vocal presence.

In this scaled-down situation, the capacity for simplicity, creativity, and "playing the song" stood out. Amendola finds inspiration in working with this folk-based unit. "They’re really open to my ideas, very musical, and Jane's voice is very pure."

Amendola is has recording and touring with another popular singer-songwriter, Noe Venable.

"The song will define. If there’s vocals, or a singer and lyrics, the band is there to support that. A good song stands on its own. In any situation, you’re there to support each other, and not sort of dominate the music. Both Jane and Noe are amazing song writers. It’s about coming up with parts that work. And there’s a freedom within those parts, in each situation. But it’s about the song."

Sonic Emanations from the City of Angels

Singing implies the bandwidth of human emotion, a concept cleverly borrowed by the entirely instrumental trio The Nels Cline Singers, singing indeed with their respective axes. Cline, the creative guitar wunderkind from L.A., is teaming up with Amendola and Devon Hoff on bass regularly these days to forge some groundbreaking exploration of the terrain bordered by electronic experimentation, rock, fusion, groove –- quite simply, a very free and expressive exploration of the elements of music each of the three strong players brings to the table from an already full past. They are recording their first CD presently for Cryptogramaphone, scheduled for release in early 2002.

Bay Area fans were able to take their pick of several evenings at Café du Nord alternating between Cline’s and Amendola’s respective bands. The room filled with people thirsty for beer and something engaging to put their ears to, and weren’t disappointed on either score. The material both bands presented showed a courage to present sounds clearly outside the norms of what should or should not be played in a bar, or a more esoteric experimental music scene, or in a jazz situation. Unabashedly they went about the business of communicating the trajectories on which their musicianship is taking them, with sweat and heart, and seemingly without a trace of arrogance.

The L.A – Bay Area connection is part of Amendola’s routine these days. He raves about the club Rocco on Santa Monica Blvd., ground zero for creative jazz in Southern California it seems. Both he and Cline are becoming regulars there in various units.

Breath and Color

One of the Bay Area’s most evolved pianists, Art Hirahara met Amendola through bassist Sickafoose, who had called the trio together for a gig at the Black Cat in North Beach last fall. They have been a unit ever since, appearing regularly at the Bacar restaurant’s trio and blowing-session scene, and taking the stage as Hirahara Trio at the San Jose Jazz Festival.

Says Hirahara, "The first time I played with him what impressed me was his ability to adapt to the moment. I’ve played with a lot of drummers, and very few are able to change on a dime, depending on what the conditions of the improvisation warrant. This gives us the freedom to go any direction, and because of that, the music will go naturally where it goes.

"I find that to be one of Scott’s great strong points – the feel doesn’t necessarily have to be locked into any certain groove. When we start a song, we might start it out in a swing feel, but who knows if it will end that way. He’s completely at home in the jazz medium, and I’m sure infuses his playing with other perspectives that someone who strictly did jazz might not think about. And I think that’s part of the reason he’s so adaptive –- that he can gauge what the musical situation is and take any of his experiences he’s had in his other settings and apply them tastefully in the jazz setting."

The trio gives Amendola the opportunity to express one of his favorite musical forms, the ballad.

"I have to play ballads, I love to play ballads. I feel it’s a really important thing to get people used to, again, instead of just hitting them over the head with barrages of notes and grooves all night. Because I think people like ballads. It’s a breath, it’s a moment, it’s pretty introspective, and I think people like to go there. I like to go there -- I could play ballads all night. Which is maybe odd for a drummer, but I love them."

Ballads do give Amendola plenty of space to play melodically.

"Like that song my band plays, 'Redlaquer Blue' -- it sort of evolved into me playing this free cymbal thing. I just think that’s the shit people should be listening to, as well as the other stuff. Music is so broad, there’s so many possibilities."

Amendola seems to show up everywhere to keep the live music happening on all fronts, sharing news updates through his website. He was on hand for John Schott at a sidewalk gig for the city of Berkeley, and there for composer/pianist Graham Connah’s CD release party at Tuva Space in south Berkeley with Evander Music label exec and inventive saxophonist Phillip Greenlief. Obviously Amendola’s enthusiasm, personal support, and solid musicianship is a big part of what’s making the Bay Area cook.

A Lineage of Song

What path led Amendola to his synthesis of knowledge, confidence and chops?

"My grandfather, Tony Gottuso, played guitar -- he started in the 30's, in the Bronx. He played with everybody from Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole. He's on the original 'Hello Dolly' with Louis Armstrong. And he played on 'The Tonight Show' from '52 to '57, toured with Sinatra, recorded with Joe Venuti. He was a great guitar player -- we used to play together, it was really fun."

"He is somebody who really taught me about song, because he loved playing with singers. He also used to arrange a lot of big band music, and did a lot of jingles -- he was known as the jingle king in New York for awhile. He's on this record called "Pioneers of Jazz Guitar," this classic record on the Yazoo label. But he just would always play the song.

"When we'd play together, starting when I was about thirteen, he'd take a standard and play the melody, then take like one single-note style solo, then he'd play a chord solo, then we'd do what he called toss-backs, which would be trading fours, then he'd take the head and play the melody out. He hooked me up with a teacher, Sonny Igoe, and I studied with him for six years."

"One record that really changed my life was the Chick Corea record ‘Live In Europe’, with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous. Now, my teacher was very much big band & swing, Buddy Rich, four on the floor, two and four on the hi-hat, ride pattern straight. So then I heard this record, and listened to Roy Haynes just dancing around, with a deep pocket, but the hi-hat was kind of all over the place, and the bass drum was just playing accents here and there.

"The next time I went in for a lesson, and I was playing along to this music, I just did that, and Sonny was like ‘What are you doing?’ And I said ‘Roy Haynes - check him out.’ As if this guy hadn't heard of Roy Haynes before. But he just kept saying 'Listen to Buddy Rich.' So I'd do that for him, but also started getting into a more loose, open way of playing the drums.

"My grandfather's favorite drummer of all time was Dave Tough, who was like the metronome, amazing feel, great time. He wasn't into Elvin or Coltrane, but he had played with them at some point on 'The Tonight Show,' they were all on. So after we'd play, he'd say, 'Man, you play all that crazy shit, but I love playing with you.' Pretty funny. He loved the Beatles, he just loved playing songs, a great improviser, just really great to play music with.

"I was also into Pat Metheny, and whenever he was playing in New York, my high school friend and I would go in. So in 1986 we went to the 'Song X' show at Town Hall, with Charlie Haden, and Ornette and Pat, and Jack DeJohnette and Denardo Coleman -- that show that changed my life. DeJohnette just completely blew me away -- the whole concept of time, and expression within improvisation, which I didn't really understand at the time, but was just stunned by the music I heard.

"Coleman did this free solo on an electronic drum set for about ten or fifteen minutes, and it just really hit me hard. Just the idea of sort of melody within melody, there was just this way of ideas just flowing. I liked the freeness, especially how Jack just seemed so free in his playing.

"And then I went off to Berklee in '87. I studied with Joe Hunt, who had played on a bunch of George Russell records -- someone who really opened up the drum set."

Jazz Is… Not?

Evolving from this foundation into his current array of projects, Amendola has come to feel strongly about how he views the intersection of the making of music with the marketing of music.

"I grew up listening to AC/DC and Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, it's just the times. Jazz is in there, but jazz doesn't define who I am.

"I love jazz, and I play jazz, but I think that 'jazz' has evolved. And, I think the term 'jazz' has become a marketing tool. There's people who play jazz, and that's cool, but if people ask me how to describe my band, I feel stumped.

"Because, we play music. We play elements of jazz, and we improvise over melodies and grooves and things, spirituals, hymns, and folk too. But we're forced to talk about 'jazz' because of how jazz is marketed - anybody that's improvising is supposedly playing 'jazz'.

"But to me, we're just improvising around melodies and stuff. And that's what they were doing originally in jazz, but now jazz implies something else. The term has become a way to categorize and sell records.

"So you might see a record by someone like Myra Melford, and the record company might put on the back 'file under jazz'. And it's just because they'll listen to it, and they won't know what the hell it is. Which is great. But then they file it under ‘jazz'. John Zorn said one of his big goals is to get an experimental section in record stores, and he's succeeding.

"I remember in the 80s, a Sting record won some kind of readers’ poll in a jazz category. So, what does that mean? Why do we call that, or anything, jazz? I think a hundred years from now, maybe people like Ellington, Bird, Miles, Gil Evans, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong will be known as improvisers and composers -- maybe they'll just be thought of as American composers. I just sort of want to look at it like we're beyond jazz.

"Miles Davis was a huge Frank Sinatra fan, but he was also a huge Willie Nelson fan. But people say ‘Oh, this is jazz, and this is all you're supposed to play and all you're supposed to listen to.’ But go through the course of history, all these great musicians and composers, and you’ll find that they listened to everything and they were influenced by everything. It's just other forces that have to put this stamp on everything.

"For example, I think Brad Mehldau is a genius. He's a pianist, he has this incredible trio, and he plays Radiohead songs all the time. He's an improviser, and he's one of the most articulate musicians of our time, if you read his liner notes.

"He's in the forefront of this movement of improvised music. But he's been tagged as being influenced by certain music that he never really listened to, or that he just feels like that's not where I'm coming from - and he's constantly having to defend himself. He's totally embraced by the jazz audience because he plays standards. But man, he's got his own voice within these standards. To me, It’s not jazz, it's just beyond it."

But Does It Swing?

When asked about the what, how and why of swing, Amendola is not at a loss for enthusiasm.

"Swing is a matter of groove and time and feel -- there's magic between people playing together. Duke Ellington's band, I mean, Duke just had this way of picking his players that had these voices that just made this band. It was so special.

"Jackie Terrasson, Ugonna Okegwo and Leon Parker have this really special hookup together, a way of interpreting time. Brad Meldau and Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossi move in a way that's just really unique. Medeski Martin and Wood, or Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano -- they have an incredibly special connection together. Or Charlie [Hunter] and me, or me and Todd [Sickafoose], or John [Shott] or Ben [Goldberg]. I feel like we each have this amazing hookup - you just find these people you can play with, and it's like home. John Schott's like one of my oldest musical relationships. It's like, oh, I remember this. It just works.

"And I feel like this new trio with Nels Cline and Devon Hoff is this way. There's just an understanding, and it's just magic. And Jenny Scheinman, when I play music with her, it's just, she's my soul sister, no questions asked.

"Or Adam Levy -- it's so easy to play music with him. Or this new trio, with Art Hirahara and Todd, Art's this genius piano player, and after the first gig we just were looking at each other thinking to ourselves, ok, this is something."

The playing speaks louder than words. The song is the groove, and the groove supports the song. The players are the chemistry, and the chemistry is the swing. The community is a living, breathing thing, and can best be enjoyed live. It all starts with a bit of cymbal work or a hand-drum intro or a dense wave of sound splashing across the kit.

Let the song begin.


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