Scott Amendola made his reputation in the Bay Area as an unfailingly inventive guru of groove. Whether backing guitar wizard Charlie Hunter, exploring the ingeniously knotty compositions of Thelonious Monk in the collective ensemble Plays Monk or leading his own stylistically expansive quintet, the New York-raised drummer always seemed to find a left field approach to deep in-the-pocket syncopation.
He hasn't abandoned his propulsive imperative on his new album "Lift," but his trio featuring ace San Jose bassist John Shifflett and Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker tends to explore gossamer ballads and ethereal soundscapes, sonic terrain where groove takes a back seat. Focusing on Amendola's original tunes, the group has
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developed a singular sound marked by seductive melodies, transparent textures and unsettling electronic buzzes and beeps.
"With these guys, things are always going to be different," says Amendola, 41, who celebrates the release of "Lift" with a series of West Coast gigs, including Sunday at Mountain View's Dana Street Roasting Company, Monday at Yoshi's and next Thursday at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. "It's guitar, bass and drums, and anything can happen. We all like space and we like density. If you have that combination of things, anything's possible."
"Lift" is Amendola's first new album since 2005's critically acclaimed "Believe" (Cryptogramophone), which features Parker, Shifflett and two other master improvisers who were breaking out of the jazz ghetto, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and violinist/vocalist Jenny Scheinman. He still performs in the instrumental ensemble the Nels Cline Singers (another group preoccupied with spacious soundscapes, though with a far more volatile and aggressive personality).
But it became increasingly difficult to schedule gigs with the quintet and Amendola decided to try a simpler route. Two years ago he lined up some West Coast gigs with Parker and Shifflett, "and it was amazing," Amendola says. He created his own label, SAZi Records, to release "Lift," a strikingly packaged CD with original artwork by Mexican-born Berkeley artist Victor Zubeldia.
"I love the quintet," Amendola says. "I made three records with a quintet formation and that band still exists, but I felt like I wanted a change. Nels and Jenny are really busy.
"Jeff kept saying that we should play trio and it turned into something completely new and unexpected. Jeff and I both felt that we really got to play with each other in a different way. There's a lot more interaction in a trio, a lot more space."
What makes the trio such a fascinating combo is the way that Shifflett maintains the center of gravity. Amendola and Parker have sojourned far from the straight-ahead jazz path, and they draw upon all their disparate rock, new music and avant-garde experience on "Lift," while Shifflett finds his own way to navigate through what he calls "the Amendola continent."
"My instinct is to go that traditional route, but that would be wrong for this music, and that's the fun challenge," says Shifflett, who teaches jazz at San Jose State. "I can essentially play any note in any rhythm and time and Scott's going to make it sound right. It is beautiful, just unexpectedly so."
The connection between Amendola and Parker goes back two decades, to their undergraduate years at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. In much the same way Amendola became a creative catalyst on the Bay Area scene, Parker is an essential player on Chicago's vital scene, touring and recording widely with the post-rock band Tortoise (he's also an original member of drummer Brian Blade's gospel steeped Fellowship band, with whom he'll be performing at Yoshi's next month).
Much of the trio's music flowed out of Amendola after a nearly yearlong bout of writer's block following the birth of his first child. He finally broke through when he was singing his son to sleep, an impromptu melody that evolved into the album's last track "Lullaby for Sascha." The group explores some dark and scary spaces too, like on the crunching "Death By Flower," but the mood tends to be contemplative and light, with luminous lyrical passages like the lovely opener "Tudo De Bom."
"Scott's just an incredible drummer," Parker says. "He writes simple, beautiful music. The only thing I try to do is be faithful to what's happening compositionally, and that brings out a more lyrical side of my playing.
"I try to be true to my ear and play simple, clear ideas. I like to let the music breathe and create space for listeners to find themselves in."