Desert Island Jazz
Scott Amendola (2002)

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Music writer Derk Richardson’s oft-quoted observation that “If Scott
Amendola didn’t exist the San Francisco music scene would have to
invent him,” is more true than ever. But what’s become evident in
recent years is that the extraordinarily resourceful drummer has
evolved into a paragon of self-invention, a bandleader, composer and
invaluable creative collaborator at the center of a vast array of
improvisational ensembles.
While rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area scene, Amendola has
woven a dense and far reaching web of bandstand relationships that
tie him to influential figures in jazz, blues, groove, rock and new
music. An organizer by nature, he has become a creative nexus for a
community of musicians stretching from Los Angeles and Seattle to
Chicago and New York.
While he first gained widespread notice a decade ago for his work in
eight-string guitar ace Charlie Hunter’s trio, in recent years Amendola
has stepped forward as the leader of several compelling bands that
showcase his supremely supple trap work. He continues to work as a
sideman, accompanying artists such as the tart-toned vocalist
Madeleine Peyroux, guitarist and singer/songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps
and the Nels Cline Singers (a volatile instrumental trio without a
vocalist), but it’s as a bandleader that Amendola’s dynamic, everevolving
style is best showcased.
A perfect example is a recent recording session for his next release
(2005) as a bandleader featuring Los Angeles guitar hero Nels Cline
and the visionary Chicago fret-master Jeff Parker, violinist Jenny
Scheinman and stand-up bassist John Shifflett. The music is full of
extreme dynamic shifts and a crunching rock edge, with Amendola
adding textural electronic elements into his trap work via an effects
pedal board. “I’m getting more into sonic things with the pedals,
exploring noise, distortion and sonic textures by manipulating acoustic
sounds. I sample myself live, and then whatever happens happens.
It’s totally improvised, though I’m developing a vocabulary with it.”
The quintet isn’t a working band, but it captures the eclectic nature of
Amendola’s sound, with its peculiar mix of electric and acoustic
instruments. It’s not jazz-fusion in any traditional sense, rather the
group draws without prejudice from a huge array of influences, moving
effortlessly from dense, thundering rock to lilting, melodically driven
song-like pieces. “I feel like my whole thing as a leader has been
about trying to put all this stuff together,” Amendola says. “This new
band is just strings and percussion, with acoustic bass, violin and two
guitars. I don’t mind playing a song that sounds like Crazy Horse, or a
tune that Nels refers to as the Pacific Jazz Quintet, with an old school
West Coast jazz vibe.”
In many ways, the new quintet is an offshoot of the original Scott
Amendola Band, the group that cemented the drummer’s reputation as
a bandleader with a captivating aural vision. The original quintet’s
unusual instrumentation of saxophones, violin, acoustic bass, electric
guitar and trap set gave the band a signature sound, while Amendola’s
open-ended compositions grew out of captivating grooves from
Afrobeat to off-kilter funk to Ornette Coleman inspired jazz pieces to
lush ballads.
Cline wasn’t on hand for the band’s eponymous debut album in 1999,
but he contributed to the quintet’s combustible chemistry on the 2003
Cryptogramophone album “Cry.” For Cline, Amendola’s surging
creative energy was apparent at their initial encounter. “The first time
I heard Scott I was really blown away,” Cline says. “There aren’t too
many drummers on the West Coast who had his wide ranging ability.
Scott’s got some funk in him, a looser, sexy thing going on, and the
flexibility to play free and different styles. He plays behind
singer/songwriters and he rocks too.”
Now that Cline is spending most of his time on the road with Wilco,
Amendola has taken his band in yet a new direction, exploring the
transparent, unplugged dynamics of a chamber ensemble. The latest
incarnation of Amendola’s band is a quartet called ‘Scott Amendola
Band-Chambers of Grace’, featuring bassist John Shifflett, violinist
Jenny Scheinman and Art Hirahara on piano and Fender Rhodes. The
band’s book is similar to Amendola’s old quintet, with some
instrumental covers. But the band’s repertoire is mostly made up of
Amendola’s engaging original tunes, pieces that are so well crafted
they can work as high-velocity fusion or as gentle, folk-like themes.
“Chambers of Grace is the acoustic version of my band,” Amendola
says. “The irony being the Rhodes isn’t acoustic, but it’s as close as
you can get without a digital piano, and I don’t want that. I’d much
rather have another sound that will complement the violin really well.
It’s more of a chamber group but it’s also an orchestra. It could also
be a little more Keith Jarrett, jazzy and acoustic, or from the Carter
Family to a string quartet.”
Chambers of Grace recently recorded a live performance at Yoshi’s
that is slated for release sometime in late 2005. The group has turned
into a particularly effective showcase for Scheinman, whose career has
flourished through her work with guitarist Bill Frisell and
pianist/composer Myra Melford since she relocated from the Bay Area
to Brooklyn five years ago. “His compositions have very strong and
clear and accessible melodies,” Scheinman says. ”Every tune is based
on a drum part that he really enjoys playing, and when Scott’s happy
there’s so much joy coming out of him.”
Around the Bay Area, Amendola explores the many facets of his
expansive rhythmic sensibility in an intriguing series of small combos.
As a jazz player, for instance, he’s performed extensively with the
cooperative group ‘plays Monk’, a trio featuring clarinetist Ben
Goldberg and bassist Devin Hoff that focuses on the brilliant, knotty
composition of modern jazz giant Thelonious Monk. “We’ve created
certain moods for tunes, more than developing set arrangements,”
Amendola says. “What really makes the trio its own thing and opens
up possibilities is the lack of a chordal instrument. We’ve all played
and listened to a lot of Thelonious Monk. One could really study Monk’s
music for a lifetime.”
There’s also the new potent groove trio with the blazing Hammond B3
newcomer Wil Blades and the brilliant guitarist Will Bernard, whose
relationship with Amendola dates back to their days in the fondly
recalled T.J. Kirk. In a more straight-ahead vein, Amendola has been
performing in a trio version of his band with guitarist Dave Mac Nab,
an original member of the Scott Amendola Band, and Shifflett on
acoustic bass. While the group’s sound continues to evolve, it keys on
Mac Nab’s lean, clean sound, which mostly eschews effects and
distortion. “That trio is definitely more inside,” Amendola says. “There
are sonic textures, and Dave does use some pedals, but it’s really
about songs and melodies and chords more than soundscapes.”
Soundscapes are the focus of the improvisational acoustic-electronic
group known as CRATER, Amendola’s collaboration with laptop artist
JNHO. They first worked together in the band Wavelord, which was a
group more focused on composition. CRATER is an improv-centric
ensemble that has utilized a revolving cast of players, most notably
Nels Cline, though at various times the group has featured violinist
Carla Kihlstedt, and cellists Matt Brubeck and Marika Hughes as well as
guitarists Avi Bortnick and Will Bernard. On a number of occasions the
group has turned into a multimedia project with visual artist Carole
Kim. In many ways, CRATER has become the locus of Amendola’s
most ambitious musical thinking. “I want to do Huge CRATER,” he
says, “with a visual artist, and a string section featuring Carla and
Marika and with Devin Hoff on contrabass, a horn section consisting of
the ROVA Saxophone Quartet and Ben Goldberg, and the rhythm
section with a guitar player, using section leaders to organize the
improvisation.”
Amendola's past musical connections are vast and varied, including
recordings, tours and performances with artists such as Bill Frisell,
Wadada Leo Smith, Shweta Jhaveri, Larry Goldings, Jeff Parker, Sex
Mob, Larry Klein, Darryl Johnson, Carla Bozulich, Robin Holcomb and
the Joe Goode Dance Group, Wayne Horvitz, Johnny Griffin, Viktor
Krauss, Tony Furtado, Julian Priester, Jessica Lurie, Sonny Simmons,
ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Pat Martino, Peter Apfelbaum, Jim
Campilongo, Bobby Black, Paul McCandless, Ben Goldberg, Noe
Venable, and Mark Turner. He considers all of these formative
experiences, but singles out a few gigs as particularly inspiring,
including a six-week European tour with pianist Jacky Terrasson, and a
performance at the Jazzschool in Berkeley with saxophonist Dave
Liebman that was documented on a live recording. He also mentions
exploring the music of Masada with John Zorn, recording with
Vancouver-based piano master Paul Plimley and bassist Lisle Ellis, and
touring in Europe with trumpeter Jack Walrath. "Jack's whole thing is
he’s constantly playing, he’s constantly part of the music," Amendola
explains. "When you’re a horn player you tend to do your solo and
then sit back, but he was always injecting ideas and keeping the
intensity up."
Born and raised in the New Jersey suburb of Tenafly, just a stone’s
throw from New York City, Amendola was the kind of kid who showed
an inclination for rhythm almost from the moment he could walk. His
grandfather Tony Gottuso, a highly respected guitarist who split his
time between studio sessions, was a member of the original Tonight
Show Band under Steve Allen, and would do gigs with jazz luminaries
such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Nat “King”
Cole, offered plenty of support when Amendola began to get interested
in jazz. “ We used to play together a lot when I was a teenager. It
had a huge impact on me to play with someone who was around when
a lot of the standards that musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane,
and Keith Jarrett play.”
“I used to bang on things as a kid,” Amendola says. “I’d just sit around
banging on pots and pans and coffee cans. When I was nine, we had
to pick an instrument in school, and I started studying drums at
school.”
His passion for music only deepened during his four years at Boston’s
Berklee College of Music, where it wasn’t unusual for him to practice
for 12 hours a day. Drawing inspiration from fellow students such as
Jorge Rossi, Jim Black, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Mark Turner, and
studying with the likes of Joe Hunt and Tommy Campbell, Amendola
decided he had to find his own voice rather than modeling himself
after established drummers. After graduating in 1992, he decided to
move to San Francisco, where he quickly hooked up with Charlie
Hunter. They went on to play together with John Schott and Will
Bernard in the three-guitar-and-drums funk jazz super group T.J. Kirk
that was nominated for a Grammy in 1996.
“From the first gig we played together Charlie and I had a really great
hook-up,” Amendola says. “Ever since I played with my grandfather
I’ve just really loved the guitar and I wanted to meet a young guitar
player who was doing something different. And you can’t get more
different than what Charlie’s doing.”
While Hunter and many of the other players Amendola worked with in
the 90s have moved to New York, the drummer feels he’s found the
perfect environment in the San Francisco Bay Area. With creative
relationships spreading out across the country, he’s never more than
one degree away from a powerful musical hook-up.
Pick Artist Album Song Label
# 1 John Coltrane Crescent Crescent (Impulse)
# 2 Duke Ellington Far East Suite Tourist Point of View (RCA)
# 3 Paul Motian Trioism It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago (JMT)
# 4 Miles Davis 1969 Festiva de Juan Pins Directions (Sony)
# 5 Bill Evans Waltz for Debby My Foolish Heart (OJC)
# 6 Ornette Coleman Science Fiction Sessions Street Woman (Columbia)
# 7 Ahmad Jamal Cross-Country Tour, 1958-1961 Poinciana (GRP)
# 8 Weather Report Mysterious Traveller Blackthorn Rose (Columbia)
         
Book e.e. cummings, "Complete Poems 1904-1962"; or Steve Biko, "I Write What I Like"
         
Luxury Item An old Martin guitar
Alternate Picks/Not Broadcast
Alt 1 Nels Cline The Inkling N/A (Cryptogramophone)
Alt 2 Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconcelos Duaz Vozes N/A (ECM)
Alt 3 Glenn Gould J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 N/A (Sony Classical)
Alt 4 Mahalia Jackson 16 Most Requested Songs N/A (Columbia)
Alt 5 Thelonious Monk Monk in Tokyo N/A (Columbia)
Alt 6 Astor Piazzolla Luna N/A (Hemisphere)
Alt 7 Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley N/A (Capitol)
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