February 13, 2006
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
SCOTT AMENDOLA: UNLIMITED POSSIBILITIES
By Forrest Dylan Bryant
When Scott Amendola sits down at his drum kit, almost anything can happen. That's not mere hyperbole; it's a fact. From his base in Berkeley, California, Amendola provides the rhythmic drive for some of the most creative and acclaimed ensembles in the jazz avant- garde, including the Nels Cline Singers and his own Scott Amendola Band. But he's also the road drummer for the phenomenally popular singer Madeleine Peyroux. Throw in his work with Charlie Hunter and the funky quartet T.J. Kirk, the electro-acoustic freedom of his ensemble CRATER, and a discography that's grown to nearly 70 albums in only 10 years, and it's easy to discern two key points about Amendola: that he's very much in demand, and that he likes to mix things up.
A prime example of this polyglot approach to music can be found on The Scott Amendola Band's 2005 release, Believe (on Cryptogramophone Records). In the course of nine tracks, Believe moves from an Americana feel to a Fela Kuti-inspired Afrobeat vibe, and even into outright noise, with multiple genres often squeezed into a single track. Reflecting on this eclecticism over lunch at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant a few blocks from his home, a wry smile plays over Amendola's face.
"It just happens that way," he says between bites of mock chicken. He is lean and bespectacled, with unruly curls atop his head and colorful tattoos on each arm. The smile rarely leaves his face. "Right now we're exposed to so much music, you can just turn on the radio or satellite radio and run through the channels and hear everything. And the younger generations, like our generation, have really come to like a lot of different music. So because I've been exposed to so many different things, and I like them, it all comes out in my own music."
"Like when I recorded Believe, [guitarist] Nels Cline was like, 'I don't know how you're going to sequence this, man,' because the tunes are all over the map. And there was a point when I stopped and thought, well this is interesting. But then I figured, well, yeah. This is where I'm at. It'll work. And it did."
Pots, Pans & Coffee Cans
The journey to this point began in Tenafly, New Jersey, the New York City suburb where Amendola grew up. An affinity for the drums came early: "I was banging on stuff when I was five or six years old," he says. "I'd take pots and pans and coffee cans and chopsticks, set 'em up and just bang. I just loved doing it. And then when I was nine I got to choose an instrument for the school band, and I chose the drums." But if drums were an inevitable choice for Amendola, jazz was not.
“I was listening to a lot of really bad music back then, a lot of top 40 radio, heavy metal. When I was eleven I wanted to be [Led Zeppelin drummer] John Bonham. But my grandfather, Tony Gottuso, he was a jazz guitarist, and he'd played with everybody. He was in the original Tonight Show Band; he'd worked with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, everybody. And he insisted that I take piano lessons for two years before I got serious about the drums. I hated studying the piano. I was such a terrible student! But I totally appreciate now that I did it, because it does help tremendously. And then I started listening to jazz, and I heard my grandfather play. And once we started playing together, that's when I really started to learn about time. My grandfather swung harder than anybody, and his musicality was on a really high level. He played circles around me."
An epiphany came in 1986, when Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman were together for Metheny's Song X tour. "I saw Metheny in New York every time he came to town, but it was always with the same band. I didn't know what Song X was all about." The blending of Metheny's sound with a giant of the avant-garde blew Amendola away. "I remember that night like it's right now. There was Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden and Ornette and Denardo [Coleman], and I just heard stuff I'd never heard before, I felt things I'd never felt before. That was when I realized that music could be anything. It was like walking through a door. But I didn't understand that right away, and I didn't know what to do with it until much later."
Finding a Path
Amendola's playing evolved during four years spent at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he was part of a generation that included Kurt Rosenwinkel, Seamus Blake, and Luciana Souza. "I began to experiment on my own," he says. "I started improvising in my basement, really looking at my drums, focusing on them, and thinking, 'okay, I don't have to do this, I can do that instead.' It broke apart a lot of stuff in my head. I think there was a time when I wanted to be a New York studio drummer, and just do session work, then maybe break into something like the Letterman show band or Saturday Night Live or whatever. But now there was this creative element starting to come out. It was like a ringing in my head."
“I was really into Steely Dan and Dave Weckl back then. I copied everything Dave did. But I was also starting to listen to more of Ornette's stuff, and Keith Jarrett, and Miles Davis' late '60s and early '70s things. So there was this new feeling creeping into my drumming, and no matter what I did it was there."
He pauses as he identifies another pivotal moment. "When I was about 20, I auditioned for this mainstream band. I was in the basement getting ready and listening to their records, but by the second day I was thinking, 'man, I don't want to play this music this way. I don't want to play this at all.' So I decided to just learn the songs, and then figure out how to play them so they felt right to me. And when I went in to play with these guys, I started scraping cymbals and stopping the beat and doing all this stuff they weren't used to. I didn't get the gig, but I had a great time. I went back to Boston, and that's when I made up my mind. I decided that I was gonna learn who I was, and that I was gonna do what I was gonna do, with no second-guessing."
It was a bold decision, especially given the often-tenuous life of a jazz musician. Amendola recalls his first paying professional gig: "It was in Boston, at this place called the Middle East. I was with this vibraphonist, Philippe Cornaz. I think that was the first. Anyway, there was nobody there except my dad, who had just come up from New York. I remember sitting with him afterwards, when the owner came up and gave me like five bucks. And my dad turned to me and gave me this look and said, 'good luck!'"
Go West, Young Man
Another bold move came after Amendola's graduation from Berklee in 1992. He decided to forsake the New York jazz scene for the San Francisco Bay Area. He was lured west by a relationship, which didn't last. "I knew it was going to fall apart," he says today, "but I wanted to leave New Jersey, get away from New York. I'd visited San Francisco and loved it, and I had a bunch of names of people out here. So I just decided it was time."
Once he arrived, Amendola was never motivated to look back. "It was really liberating. The tradition of the Bay Area is one of creativity. Whether you're talking about jazz or rock or punk or funk, the vibe here is always one of creativity and branching out. And you always meet people here who are willing to cross over and play in different scenes with different musicians. It's what music should be. I feel like anything's possible here, and I love that. All you have to do is pick up the phone."
Drawing on one of his college experiences, Amendola hooked up with a couple of Bay Area African bands, which he describes now as being "pretty awful." It was a hardscrabble time. Amendola got a job delivering bread in the mornings, and took any gig he could get: "not like a lot of weddings or anything, but little one-shot club gigs. I did a lot of those." But he soon started to make friends in the local jazz scene, and began the first in a long string of associations with guitarists. "I was playing with a flautist for a while, but then I met John Schott, and then Charlie Hunter."
Charlie Hunter and T.J. Kirk
It was with Hunter that things finally began to come together. "Charlie and I met when I filled in for Jay Lane, who had double-booked himself. We connected instantly. It was right there. He had this regular gig on Fridays with Kenny Brooks at the Up & Down club in San Francisco, and he invited me to join them. Suddenly I had a regular Friday gig, and soon Charlie and I were doing other things too."
Those "other things" included several years in the Charlie Hunter Quartet, which recorded three albums in as many years for Blue Note. But it also led to the formation of the jazz- funk outfit T.J. Kirk, a unique project that continues, albeit with long periods of dormancy, to this day. "It was Charlie's idea to pull this off," Amendola says. The words tumble out of his mouth in a rapid-fire imitation of Hunter: "He was like, 'hey, you wanna do a band called T.J. Kirk we'll play Thelonious Monk and James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and it'll be great!' And I said, 'uh… okay!'" When the group gets together — they last surfaced on a 2003 album for Rope-a-Dope (Talking Only Makes It Worse) — they maintain their original lineup of Hunter, Schott, and Will Bernard on guitars and Amendola on drums. There are no horns, keyboards, or other instruments, but the unusual lineup doesn't limit the group. "The thing about that band is, and I say 'is' because it's not dead, is it really is a band. You take these four people and put 'em in a room, and something great is gonna happen. We know the music so well that at any moment someone can start something and bang, we're there. That's a rare thing. It takes a long time and a lot of sparks. We had to learn how to work together, but it's so fun and so free that it's become like a little collective."
Amendola thinks that the band's three sources are also a critical factor. "There's a spirit that they all have, Monk and Brown and Kirk, and a compositional uniqueness. With all of them, you have that groove thing, but also you have an intricacy of parts. You can take those tunes and work them out for three guitars doing three different things. It works subconsciously. And they're all kind of bizarre people. I think it's that combination of who they all are and our mutual interest in them that makes it work. Look at Charlie for example, and where he's coming from. Weird but accessible: that was Monk and that's Charlie."
Three of a Kind: Amendola, Cline, Scheinman
In the mid-1990s, Amendola made two contacts that would be critical in forging his own identity as a composer and a leader. Guitarist Nels Cline and violinist Jenny Scheinman are key members of the Scott Amendola Band, and the three musicians frequently appear in each other's projects. All three are now label mates at Los Angeles-based Cryptogramophone, which is no coincidence.
Amendola met Cline through a mutual friend, saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, with whom Amendola had recorded a duo project for the 9 Winds label. It took only a few scattered gigs together for the two to forge a bond, and by 1999 they found themselves playing together in the band L. Stinkbug, alongside guitarist G.E. Stinson and bassist Stuart Liebig. "It was a blast," he says. "It was only occasional, but every time we got together and played it was just amazing. So one day I was on this really bad tour, and I was really bummed out, and I asked myself, if I could play with anybody in the world right now, who would I want to play with? And it was Nels. So I wrote him an e-mail and said, 'look man, we gotta play music together. Your stuff. Your tunes.' And he replied, saying, 'that's funny, I was just thinking the same thing!' Nels' trio had just fallen apart, and he was ready to do something else. But we needed a bass player. Well, soon after that I was talking to Devin Hoff. And I started telling him about playing with Nels, and Devin just took off. For 45 minutes he talked about Nels and his bands, The Geraldine Fibbers, all this stuff, nonstop. We'd found our bass player. And when we finally sat down to play, from the first note we were all like, wow, this is a band. It was greater than the sum of its parts... like H2O or something! It was beautiful."
Amendola speaks quietly for the most part, his words barely above a mumble. But he becomes animated when the topic turns to Cline, and much as Devin Hoff did years ago, he "takes off."
“Nels brought so much stuff out of me. Like I use a lot of electronics on stage now, and he's one of the reasons, because he saw it in my basement and he was like, 'you gotta bring that shit out. Just do it!' He's always improvising, always making noise. Working with him is like having a mentor. He's one of the greats. Anybody that knows Nels or has worked with him knows it. You can just see it, you can hear it, you can feel it. He never ever wavers onstage. Never."
He begins chuckling to himself. "Here's a funny story: we were playing a gig, with another guitar player who shall remain nameless, and this guy was conducting the gig. And for the whole night, anytime we started anything, he would just kill it. Just as it started getting good, this guy would cut it off! It was really weird, and everybody started to get frustrated. So it's getting towards the end of the gig, and Nels and I start getting into it; it's just going. And then this guys moves to cut it off, but Nels turns on him and goes, 'F--- YOU! KEEP PLAYING! F--- YOU!' And we kept playing! The man's a genius. He's everything that music should be, and he's a deep person. I've learned so much from that guy. When he gets into a situation with people he likes, when he likes where the music's going, he just pours all this positive energy into it, and always comes up with great ideas and pushes things to the max."
That same energy carries through into the studio. About the two records Cline has made with the Scott Amendola Band (Cry and Believe, both on Cryptogramophone), Amendola says, "I have the most efficient band on the planet. We made both those records in 15 hours or less, and we'd come out with more than 80 minutes of music. Nels is so focused. With Cry, I remember we were having some problems in the studio, and it was 1:00 in the morning, second day, and Jenny Scheinman had to go and overdub this solo and she was exhausted, right? She'd been going all day and wasn't sure she could keep it up. But she got in there and Nels just got this fire going in her, and he was like, 'PLAY!' and she just killed that solo."
Scheinman, who now lives in New York, was a stalwart on the Bay Area scene for years. Amendola worked in several of Scheinman's California bands, including The Django Project, which focused on the music of Django Reinhardt, and a quartet playing the violinist's original compositions.
“Jenny is also really focused," Amendola says. "She writes great music, and she's super-passionate about it. When she's there and playing there's no stopping her. She's more than just a fiddle player or even a jazz violinist — she can do the Joe Venuti thing or the classical thing or the free music thing. She's even got the Catfish Collins thing, you know? She can just sit there and groove. She loves comping and bringing a rhythm. But then she can soar. Like on my tune 'Buffalo Bird Woman,' the way she phrases that melody, to me it's like Neil Young singing."
What the Singer Wants
The quality of singing is something Amendola can certainly appreciate. Beyond his instrumental projects lies a long resume of backing up distinctive vocal stylists, including Noe Venable, Kelly Joe Phelps, and, most visibly, Madeleine Peyroux. He came into Peyroux's camp during the recording of her breakthrough album, Careless Love (Rounder, 2004). Larry Klein, the album's producer, approached Amendola about playing on the record. Amendola was on tour with Phelps, but he found time to visit the studio and lay down brushwork on one track. When it came time for Peyroux to hit the road, Amendola got the call again. He's been a mainstay on her tours ever since.
Amendola finds the experience rewarding, but there have been unexpected twists. "The shows have been wonderful," he says, "musically it's been great. But one thing that's interesting is that there's been a minor amount of... not backlash, but unhappiness from some fans over the shows." Referring to some of the hype that has built up around Peyroux's quirky vocal style, he says, "Some people see Madeleine in terms of this Billie Holiday connection. They come in thinking, 'oh wow, I'm gonna hear the new Billie Holiday.' And then when they hear her and get a taste of who she really is, they're not ready for it. They say, 'wait, that's not what I wanted to pay however many dollars to go see.' Because Madeleine is so much more than that. But some of the audience comes from an old-school perspective, wanting to define things, and they just can't deal with it. That's unfortunate, but luckily, that's a really small percentage of the audience."
Amendola finds that each singer he backs up is unique. "Different vocalists want different things," he explains, "just like different saxophone players or anybody else would. Like with Madeleine there's this real minimal thing. I play brushes on like 90 percent of the gig. For about two weeks on this last tour, she wanted me to play sticks on a few things, but then she wanted to go back to brushes."
“With Kelly Joe, I was playing a lot of sticks and doing a lot of percussion things. He used to be a fretless electric jazz bass player. An improviser. So it was still about the songs, but every song was different each night, whether it was his vocal phrasing or just where the songs went. Because of who he is and where he's coming from I could bring in all the elements of improvisation, and the energy was just incredible. He's one of the most interesting guys I've ever played with. It was just genius, this great marriage of song and improv."
“Then when I was working with Noe Venable, it was really about parts, and coming up with those, whether it was a drum part or a percussion part or whatever. And that's interesting for me, working with parts and song structures. Like when I made that record with Jewlia Eisenberg and Marika Hughes called Thick — Red Pocket was the name of the band — we just made the record. We'd played a couple of gigs, or maybe just one, so they let me just come up with parts that I liked. And they let me go crazy with percussion, let me do whatever I wanted. So in any vocal situation it comes down to what the singer wants; some people don't want much at all and some people want a lot of stuff. It's about that and being musical and not overplaying, you know? I've had times in all of those gigs where the songs were so great, that even if I was barely playing or even stopped playing, that could be equally satisfying as playing, just being in that environment."
Amendola the Composer
Working with singers has opened up new vistas in Amendola's personal style, both as a drummer and as a composer. "It did bring out something different, and that's just being more aware and conscious of what's happening. I mean, I've always felt pretty deep into the music, but playing with singers got me into learning songs and learning about songs; it's really deepened my relationship with song structure. I think I'm bringing that into everything else now, even free playing. In free playing, maybe it's not even conscious, but you end up structuring compositions. I find that a lot when I play with Nels, because Nels is a real song player, with lots of melodic ideas. That's where I'm coming from as a composer, too, I just write melodies and then I write chords. Or I don't even bother with chords: I'll just write melodies and let everybody else figure out what the chords are!"
Although he began writing music in college, Amendola doesn't feel his career as a composer really began until 1997 or 1998: "once I began working with the right group of people, it just started coming." His compositional method hasn't changed, but he feels that his sense of harmony has grown over time. "And the other thing is that I'm more comfortable as a bandleader, which makes me more comfortable as a composer. But composing is still the scariest thing in music. I can play someone else's song in front of a million people, but playing my own song in front of two people is just terrifying."
Composition is still something of a mystery for Amendola. "The thing for me is that it's something I can't force. I can't try to write something. It just comes to me and I go with it, and try to make it work if I can. Like when I've made my records, I may expressing a certain thing, but I don't really control that. It's just whatever's coming out and coming together, and how I'm feeling at the time."
Increasingly, Amendola has reached beyond his drum kit in search of additional textures and sounds. A frequent sight in his performances now is an electric mbira — an African thumb piano with a pickup attached. "I've taken it to a few workshops and clinics recently, and the hands always go up: what's that? Workshops are a good opportunity to use it because I don't have anyone providing a melody there. So I can make a few melodic loops with the mbira and then play along with it, get into that sonic world, that chromatic space. And then I can take it out, play a little more, put it back in… I've done that with my own band and with the Nels Cline Singers too. And sometimes when I'm playing with CRATER and just improvising I'll try to come up with a couple of lines or something. But then I'll just get totally whacked with the distortion on it and do something really crazy."
Nels Cline (L) and Scott Amendola (R)
CRATER is another unique project, a freeform ensemble that's as much an event as a band. Like most other Amendola projects, CRATER is intermittent, re-forming when the stars align and then dispersing again. The group is never the same twice, but at its core are Amendola and JHNO [a.k.a. John Eichenseer], a sonic artist who produces music with a laptop computer. "We were playing in a band called Wavelord, with Michael Bluestein and Keith MacArthur. Michael's concept was to work the laptop into the structure, playing in time. That was cool, but I got this idea in my head to try playing something with JHNO which was completely free, and let him really do what he does, which is amazing."
“We've played a few gigs, each time with different people, mostly just with bass and guitar. But we've also done 'Big CRATER' with lots of different people. Jeff Parker's played with us, and Nels. It was amazing how there weren't any limitations. It was a real marriage of electronic, acoustic and electric music. And everybody was improvising but it had a real groove concept, and we'd hit a lot of things that seemed like songs. We'll do it again."
The Political Angle
Another factor that frequently manifests in Amendola's work is his political viewpoint, which lies at the core of who he is. One look at his song titles — "Resistance," "Cesar Chavez," "A Cry for John Brown" — or his recent reading list, which includes A People's History of the United States, is enough to gain an inkling of where Amendola is coming from politically. "Definitely from the left," he confirms, adding that if he weren't a musician, he'd probably want to focus on history, perhaps as a teacher or researcher. "When I first moved out to California, I did a lot of political activism work, but that stopped once I started working more. I still sign petitions and stuff, but lately it's coming out more on a creative level."
“Like on Cry it was really timely, with George Bush and the war in Iraq and all that. With that record there was a definite slant towards some pretty heavy feelings. That record's dark. And I chose to cover Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" on it. The record got a lot of attention because of that track. "Masters of War," the way we did it, was about rage and anger and expression, but still beauty. I remember I gave the album to one guy, someone I've toured with, and he told me that he enjoyed the record but when he got to that track he had to turn it off. It was just too heavy."
Believe, released more than a year later, had a different vibe. "There's still some politics in there, but I was leaning towards a more positive side of things. We recorded that record in the summer of 2004, before the election — which for me was just a disappointment — and I felt that the future was bright. A lot of people were organizing and connecting, and sure there were a lot of things we needed to figure out, and a lot of changes to be made, but I wanted to come out swinging and thinking positive."
This same sense of community organization pervades Amendola's sense of who he is as a musician. When the subject turns to the intersection of music and politics through such efforts as Live 8, his passion is evident.
“I think it's important to raise awareness, and to help people, like after Katrina and things like that. But oftentimes I think that musicians get mistaken for something that they're not. I think that sometimes instead of playing music on behalf of somebody else, we should just let them speak. Like at Live 8, there was this whole struggle with Bob Geldof and a lot of other people over the lack of African bands, when they're the ones who should be speaking and the rest of us should be going to hear what they have to say. Instead the message gets lost. I think that's true for a lot of things."
“I've been reading this book called No Logo by Naomi Klein. It's about branding and how corporations have gotten involved in everything. One of the things they've gotten involved in is concert promotion, and now a lot of times the brand — like "Molson Presents" — is much bigger and better promoted than the actual music. Sometimes I feel that's what's going on with events like Live 8. It's all, "U2! Green Day!" and where's the message? I'm not sure it's actually helping. It's not exactly hurting, but there needs to be a more selfless attitude about it."
“When I make my records, there's definitely a political angle on it that's my personal position, that's my form of expression and it's a very self-motivated thing. I don't know if it raises awareness or not, and that's okay because it's really just about self-expression. But how could you have a concert about Africa and not let Africans express themselves? People are gonna tune in to see Pink Floyd reunite or whatever and then shut the TV off, and what good does it do? Humanity is losing its focus. We have attention deficit disorder."
African music is dear to Amendola's heart, and his albums often feature an element of Afrobeat, the funky style made famous by the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti of Nigeria. The liner notes to Believe include a shout-out to Fela's longtime drummer, Tony Allen.
“Tony Allen is one of my heroes. He completely changed the concept of funk playing and made it this African thing, he's like Elvin Jones playing funk, and with an African sound. There's an element of dancing on the drums in Afrobeat, a lot of subtle things you can do. I remember when I was in college, playing Afrobeat with some guys, and we could stay on one groove for an hour. But it's so infectious and there's so much happening, it's really deep and profound."
“I once met somebody who spent six months in jail with Fela, and it was amazing just to hang out with this guy and learn about what was going on. Fela's concerts were also political rallies; he was always fighting for the people, and he was a huge voice. I've been attracted to this music for a long time. There's an entrenched sense of community in it, and a real energy."
Moving Beyond the Music
Amendola has no shortage of heroes. When asked to list others, the first name mentioned is martyred South African dissident Stephen Biko. Several musicians follow: Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, and Peter Gabriel. He reserves special attention for Shorter. "That's someone I'd really like to meet. I'm just fascinated by Wayne, both compositionally and in terms of his playing. I mean, there's so many different periods with Wayne, so many different facets of him: the Art Blakey period, the Miles late '60s quintet period, Weather Report… that stuff blows me away. And Wayne solo, too, like Atlantis. That's one of my favorite records of all time, although it got panned by a lot of critics. It's just these beautiful compositions, this great meeting of composition and groove and harmony, and there are some beautiful vocal things on it. It's just so Wayne and so unique."
After further reflection, he casts all of these musical icons aside for someone closer to home: "I talked about some musicians, but watching my wife go through pregnancy and birth… that tops anything." Amendola's wife, a molecular biologist, gave birth to the couple's first child in November 2005. He continues, "that's probably the most inspiring thing I've seen in life. It was great and beautiful and rough and uncomfortable. It was amazing to watch that and to see him come out. So I put her right at the top. She out- heroes any musician. And having a baby changes the way I see everything, like there's nothing more important than him. It's like Charlie Hunter told me long ago when he had his first child, 'man, I've just moved way down the list.'"
In the rare moments when he isn't gigging, recording, or touring, Amendola enjoys using his hands. "I love carpentry and metalwork," he says. "I find that kind of work fun. It's hard on the body, but really satisfying. Like I came off a tour, and a friend taught me how to work with copper pipes. So I spent like three days in the basement of this house I was fixing up just figuring out how to run all these pipes and then doing it. I like doing something tangible. And I like having skills other than music, things that are really useful."
Passing It On
Amendola also enjoys teaching the next generation of drummers, saying that although he doesn't have much spare time to devote to giving lessons or leading workshops, the experience is both engaging and rewarding. But as with his music, his teaching style is sometimes unconventional. "There was this one player I taught, and we first got together about 5 or 6 years ago. I started talking, and I just talked for an hour and a half until he finally said, 'uh, could you maybe play something now?' I mean, maybe I can give them help or point them in some direction, but sometimes just giving students something they haven't heard or haven't thought about is just as valuable."
Teaching also gives Amendola fresh insights into his own playing. "It reminds me that I need to practice!" he quips. "But seriously, anytime you talk about their craft or your art, that gives you focus. It makes me think about music and what I'm doing. And since I try to keep myself open to new ideas and possibilities, I'm open to learning from the student too."
Thinking back to his own experience as a student, two episodes stand out. "When I went to Berklee, I had a lot of good teachers. One in particular was Joe Hunt. He might say, 'what do you want to work on today?' and I'd say, 'I want to learn how to play a good brush pattern.' So he'd have me play a bit and then he'd say, 'what was wrong with that?' and I'd say, 'I dunno, it just didn't seem right.' And he'd say, 'but what's wrong with it?' And maybe there wasn't anything actually wrong with it, so he'd put it in perspective: 'if the playing is good, and the time is good, then maybe your instincts are right.' That whole concept of being able to show someone how to be their own person, to build confidence in themselves, that's an important part of teaching."
“I also spent five or six years studying with Sonny Igoe, a big band drummer. Great drummer, great teacher. I had heard Chick Corea's Live in New York record with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous, and Roy was breaking up time, just playing his butt off. And it blew me away. So at my next lesson I was trying to do that stuff, and Sonny said, 'what are you doing?' And I was like 'man, I just heard this great Roy Haynes record, and he was doing this and he was doing that,' and Sonny just said, 'Buddy Rich.' And he brought me back down to earth. It's good to be able to say, 'this is important; you should be able to do this before you get to that, and this is how it relates to that.' I respect that."
Amendola says there are several young players who he finds exciting. Guitarist Mary Halverson, who works with Trevor Dunn, is one who has caught his ear. "And there's this guy who just moved to New York named Erik Deutsch, I heard him play with Ron Miles in Colorado. He's an amazing piano player. When I saw him with Ron, he had these things going that reminded me of Nels! The things he was doing were both texturally interesting and super-musical." He also singles out Wil Blades, a San Francisco-based organist with whom Amendola has formed a well-regarded gigging trio.
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Blades figures prominently in Amendola's plans for the near future. In March of this year, the two will premiere a duo interpretation of Duke Ellington's Far East Suite. Amendola will also return to the studio soon for a tribute to seminal pianist Andrew Hill. With these projects and a regular gig in a Thelonious Monk tribute band (alongside Devin Hoff and clarinetist Ben Goldberg), it might appear that Amendola has entered a phase of looking back to his musical roots. But he says there's more to it than that.
“In terms of Andrew Hill, that's Nels' project. It'll be the Nels Cline Singers, plus Ben Goldberg and Andrea Parkins and Bobby Bradford. Nels wants to pay tribute to Andrew Hill now, while he's still around, and give him some attention. Hill's had such a profound impact on so many of us. We're doing maybe ten or eleven of his tunes. That'll be on Cryptogramophone, but I'm not sure when it'll come out; hopefully this year."
And the Far East Suite? "I've always wanted to play that music. At first I wanted to arrange it for my band. But now I have this relationship with Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco, as sort of a resident composer/artist. So I'd been preparing compositions to play there, and then I thought I could give this music a different take. I feel like Wil and I can say something interesting with it. We'll bring it down to just organ and drums, and really strip it down and try to take apart the pieces, do something that hasn't been done. I want to try a whole new concept, and we'll see what we come up with."
He's also attracted to the suite's multifaceted nature. "There's a really heavy backbeat to some of the tunes that you can just groove on, and then there are some chamber-like pieces, and "Isfahan" is beautiful, almost like an English ballad. It's an amazing work."
Plays Monk, the trio with Hoff and Goldberg, is also about breaking things down. "Here's a situation where it's clarinet, bass and drums. There's no chord voice. It's taking Monk's music and putting it into a different configuration. The way we play that music, we shy away from the melodies oftentimes. Or rather, Ben is really free with the melodies. Some of it we play straight, but the fact that there's no chordal instrument really opens up the music for Devin and Ben. And we all just love the music."
He sums up all three projects eloquently. "I feel like I spend most of my life playing other people's music, and there are some people I just want to honor, like Ellington and Monk. Those people provide a lifetime of study. They're so interesting melodically and harmonically, and I have so much to learn from them. When I play their music, it's an education. Always."
The list of current projects only begins there. Amendola just wrapped up another record, this time backing up violinist John Ettinger and saxophonist Tony Malaby. He's preparing a solo piece for drums and electric mbira to be performed in March as part of the Under the Radar improv festival at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Meanwhile, he'll be in the studio yet again for Madeleine Peyroux's next CD and then touring with her in the spring. And as if that weren't enough, Amendola also holds down a side job as a booking agent, programming music for Bacar, an upscale restaurant in San Francisco. How does he do it? "Between all the music things, I'm working 18-hour days," he says. "I really miss reading."
He may miss digging into his history books, but somehow Scott Amendola hasn't missed a beat.