February 2, 2007
MUSIC PREVIEW | Amendola's jazz vision crystallizes into a true dream band
By Bob Gendron
Scott Amendola is addicted to ideas. The San Francisco-based percussionist gets so stimulated by the blending of sonic possibilities that he is sometimes overwhelmed, and needs to remind himself he's not crazy.
"There are times where I've thought maybe I should just quit my music because I like playing with [crooner] Madeleine Peyroux and playing with
[guitarist] Nels Cline," says Amendola. "It's like maybe I'm just out of my mind and this doesn't really work, but it does."
Formula has never applied to Amendola, who has so many thoughts racing through his head that his words don't always keep pace. In conversation, the timekeeper/composer leapfrogs subjects in the same way his songs shift within a few measures. Since relocating to the Bay Area in the early '90s, Amendola has been a jazz staple, touring and performing with scores of acclaimed artists. And while technically leader of the Scott Amendola Band, when it comes to ensemble playing, he's as liberal as he is creative.
Obscured and overshadowed, most drummers yearn for a chance to bask in the spotlight. Not Amendola. Instead, the New Jersey native surrounded himself with four cutting-edge musicians, all but one a bandleader in their own right. Conceived by Amendola as a theoretical construct--he claims he heard sounds in his head, and a particular cast playing them--the quintet is a fantasy come true.
There's Cline, the newest Wilco magician who owns hundreds of recording credits, and is a tireless ethic and kaleidoscopic vision; guitarist Jeff
Parker, a member of local instrumental-rock icons Tortoise and multiple free-ranging collectives; violinist Jenny Scheinman, an emerging accompanist who has partnered with Bill Frisell, Norah Jones and Peyroux; and bassist John Shifflett, who on his resume lists outings with Peyroux, Kurt Elling, John Zorn and many others.
The collective has made only one album, "Believe" (Cryptogramophone), an eclectic, jazz-rooted melange of Afrobeat, avant-garde rock, gypsy folk and traditional balladry that leans on acoustic rhythms, electrified currents and string-based density. Yet because of logistical difficulties, the group has never gigged together, which thrills and concerns Amendola. Two week before hitting the road, the looping fanatic was still undecided on whether to bring his techno gadgetry for fear it might clog up the mix.
"It'll be interesting because as a trio you have a little room, as a quartet there's less room, and as a quintet there's less room than that," says
Still, he realizes he has a history with all of the players and gushes at how each individual contributes to the interactive whole.
"Jenny, what she brings to the music is lyrical beauty and depth," he explains. "She's got this soaring gorgeous tone, and she has this edge to it too. It sails over things. But then also, she can get in there. She can play percolating parts, and she has that bluegrass thing happening."
Amendola describes Shifflett as the hands-off anchor, implicating Cline and Parker as fringe instigators, alchemists whose contrasting techniques are instructively complementary. Cline, who keeps an unfathomably busy schedule and heads to France in advance of the group's three U.S. concerts, enjoys the dynamic wrought by he and Parker's divergent styles.
"It's fairly obvious that Jeff has, in spite of how many different sounds he's capable of making, a jazz approach to the guitar," says Cline. "You can hear Charlie Christian and Grant Green in his playing. And my sound is kind of a weird sort of spiky hybrid of jazz elements coming a little more from John McLaughlin or earlier John Abercrombie and maybe John Scofield.
"Jeff's feel on the time is also different than mine. He has this very light-in-the-middle feel when he's blowing and I tend to be a bit more
edged-out. I mean, I get a little hyper sometimes."
Such flurry is a positive, particularly since Amendola's unit both accommodates and welcomes improvisation, noise and color.
"Nels is such a giant force," says Amendola. "But then Jeff comes from a little of the hip-hop angle, and he likes to deejay."
For Cline, fitting in is a simple matter of spotting and seizing opportunities. "I'm quite often just trying to find a way to be part of the orchestra," he says. "Sometimes there's the matter of finding the right part that's not already written to fit into something."