August 30, 2002
By Andrew Gilbert

It's a wonder that Scott Amendola finds time to lead his own band.

One of the busiest and certainly most creative drummers in the Bay Area, Amendola is at the center of several outstanding ensembles, including a remarkable trio with pianist Art Hirahara and bassist Todd Sickafoose; guitarist Jim Campilongo's rootsy band; and an electronica quartet known as CRATER. But it's as a leader that Amendola is at his most dynamic, laying down supple grooves for his superlative quintet, which opens a West Coast tour Monday night at Yoshi's.

Utilizing pretty much the same instrumentation as alto saxophonist John Handy's groundbreaking group that made a classic live recording at the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival, Amendola's band features bassist Sickafoose, violinist Jenny Scheinman, guitarist Nels Cline and saxophonist Eric Crystal (who also performs next week at Yoshi's with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa).

Though Amendola's band has established itself as one of the most potent improvising ensembles on the scene, it has largely been absent from Bay Area bandstands for most of the year. The band has to contend not only with Amendola's hectic schedule, but also with geography, as Scheinman now lives in Brooklyn, and Cline is based in Los Angeles.

The relationship with Cline has become increasingly important for Amendola over the past two years. A creative catalyst on the Southern California music scene for more than two decades, Cline is widely revered by other musicians for his catholic tastes, ranging from power rock gigs with bassist Mike Watt to free improv sessions with keyboardist Don Preston, an early associate of Frank Zappa.

"Nels has been around and he's a musicologist in his own way," said Amendola, 33. "It's incredible to work with someone who's got such a wide musical sensibility."

Cline and Amendola first started playing together in the free improv ensemble Stinkbug (now L. Stinkbug). Their musical connection deepened when Cline started a new group to play his expansive compositions, the Nels Cline Singers, with bassist Devon Hoff. The band recently released a spooky, provocative album on Cryptogramophone, "Instrumentals."

When guitarist Dave MacNab had to leave Amendola's quintet, Cline joined in, giving the group a volatile edge and a wider sonic palette. The quintet is slated to release its second album on Cryptogramophone later this year.

While it might seem as though Amendola is spreading himself too thin, he has actually focused his attention in the past year, concentrating on bands that provide a huge creative return. "I've said no to a bunch of stuff. I'm realizing more and more where I want to be, who I am and what I want to do," Amendola said. It's no coincidence that so many of his commitments also involve Cline.

CRATER is another point of connection between the two musicians. The quartet also features Sickafoose and the electronic musician named jhno on laptop, and has occasionally incorporated projections by Carole Kim, an improvising video artist from Los Angeles. It's a band that deals mostly in textures, creating beautiful, sometimes chaotic waves of sound that surge and crest and then recede into quiet, shimmering passages. CRATER performs Sept. 20 at Bruno's in San Francisco and on Sept. 22 at Blake's in Berkeley.

Given his extensive involvement with Amendola, Cline offers some insight into why Amendola seems to be at the center of so many of the most interesting bands. Stipulating his brilliance as a player and his musical flexibility, Cline notes that Amendola is remarkably self-possessed. "He takes care of business, and tends to be a lot of people's dad. He has all these responsibilities, because he's able to handle things, so people rely on him."

Pianist Art Hirahara joined the cooperative trio with Amendola and Sickafoose just over a year ago. The three musicians have honed a highly flexible group approach during a steady Monday night gig at Bacar, a swanky San Francisco restaurant in the SoMa district that has turned into one of the city's leading jazz spots since Amendola started booking it last year. The band has yet to release an album, but they recorded a July gig at Yoshi's, then spent time working in the studio. The trio plays tonight at Downtown in Berkeley.

"The group has definitely opened up new areas for me as a player and a writer," Hirahara said. "It's so openly structured. There are some times we'll just play, not necessarily a song, just to see where it goes. It's definitely not a traditional straight-ahead jazz group. We're not locked into any particular groove or style. There's the ability for anything to happen at any moment."



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