October 6, 2005
THE GOOD SILVER OF SCOTT AMENDOLA
By Dennis Cook
Folks used to talk about the good china, the good silver. It came out of velvet-lined oak boxes and glass-door cabinets. It instantly separated an event from the day-to-day. Ah, napkin rings, this must be a special night! In an increasingly casual time, there's a hunger for that kind of class and beautifully unveiled elegance. Music, too, these days has an air of informality that's both comforting and a little disappointing. Sure, the line between performer and listener is blurred, but going to a show lacks the top hat jive of say the symphony or a musical. We whoop and hoot whenever we damn well please and musicians be damned. They duel with clanking bottles and useless, insensitive chatter. Even jazz, once a bastion of quiet respect and attentive listening, has had its decorum whittled away at. But as I entered the Kuumbwa, all was silent save for the stage. Up there stood the good china, the good silver.
After an almost unnatural love of singer-songwriters and a pervasive weakness for gutbucket rock 'n' roll, the next in my pantheon of musical pleasures are Player's Players, those supremely gifted musicians who understand music on a level most will never know. They possess an intimacy with the underlying principles of notes and chords AND how those things can be translated through wood, wires, and wind. From my first listen to Believe, the magnificent new offering from the Scott Amendola Band, it was abundantly clear that these were master musicians. Even if I didn't already know the names Amendola (drums, live electronics), Nels Cline (guitar), Jeff Parker (guitar), John Shifflett (bass), and Jenny Scheinman (violin), the ferocity and subtlety of their playing instantly convinced me that this was the master class at work. If this project continues unfettered, one can imagine them creating a new Kind of Blue or In A Silent Way. Face to face with the same band (sans Parker, busy with his day job in Tortoise), that feeling of unbridled talent and skill was even more palpable.
I took a seat on the Scheinman side. I'm powerless to not gravitate towards Jenny's violin due to the most pronounced musical crush I've had in some time. After seeing her with Carla Bozulich doing Willie Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger" and then again this summer at High Sierra as part of Bill Frisell's band, I can confidently say she's one of the most alluring music-makers around. Her passion and unerring instinct for when to lay out or pounce guarantee a kinetic energy with anyone with whom she shares the stage. Her every entrance gave me a pleasant shiver. And I dig that she wears a dress when she performs, too. That's a nice touch.
Her large, dark eyes stared down Nels Cline (on a furlough from his recent stint with Wilco) as he forced a storm wind from his solid body instrument on the opener. Scheinman focused the gale breeze towards an unexpected but wholly pleasant Latinismo side road. Predicting the next move all night, even if you were familiar with the compositions, was a sucker bet. Music is alive in hands like these, eliminating limitations and opening doorways.
Behind it all, in several respects, was Scott Amendola, maybe the most joyous percussionist I've ever seen. His smile lights the way even through prickly corridors like "Believe" or the frizzled intro to the Neil Young and Crazy Horse sound-alike "Buffalo Bird Woman," which began like some old-timey radio being digested by a whale and flowed into some tough, spacey lap steel from Cline. Amendola isn't showy. His isn't the way of Billy Cobham or Steve Smith. He's closer to Joey Baron (John Zorn), Matt Chamberlain (Critters Buggin), Brian Blade, and Jason Smart (JFJO). In short, the best drummers alive - all flexible as yogis, patient, and strong as mountains. Combine those talents with a rapidly emerging gift for nuanced compositions, and you begin to understand why Amendola is a studio player in much demand, and besides leading this group also performs in the outro-grande Nels Cline Singers, Madeleine Peyroux, and many others.
Yet, this seemed like his natural habitat. Surrounded by longtime associates, delving into tunes that clearly have long legs, Amendola burned at a blinding wattage. Each number was an intense act of active listening. While concerned with their own output, everyone seemed equally attuned to the things happening around them. A creature with this many limbs usually stumbles a bit, wobbles on a sharp left, or flounders during the epilogue. Not here. It's not to say they were of one mind - this is clearly the product of cumulative imaginations. But the spirit of the thing, the core principles in Amendola's scheme, were shared and celebrated in a way that nicely expanded on the album versions.
One section might evoke the Hot Club of France, with violin sauntering with a Charlie Christian lick, which would soon be punctured by atonal string strikes. Below and above rode Shifflett's bass, his haunting bow work or tugging fingers always in a fine place, a spot one could rest a weary ear. "Just Once" was pure romance without the usual saccharine, close in spirit to Charlie Haden's Quartet West. "Smarty Pants" walked further into blues territory than the studio rendition, and a spacious take on gospel tune "His Eyes On The Sparrow" marched gracefully into a crackling "Believe." There's the bigness of Aaron Copeland at times that brings in the outdoors. Other sections carry the intimacy of a rock band, with all the immediate, pheromone-drenched implications intact.
It's complex stuff, but it's so feisty, so here-and-now that it escapes being off-putting highbrow fare. The music is classy but not classist. It lifts the conversation beyond the workaday but doesn't deny anyone a place at the table. That's the real allure of the good china, the good silver. It takes us out of our routine by sharing tradition. Amendola, Scheinman, Cline, and Shifflett do their profession proud by communicating the good things of the past in a fresh way. Their approach to music is as old as Mozart's or Debussy's, but they wrap it in colors that appeal to a generation nurtured by rock, electric jazz, and simple pop. They take what's been inherited and prove it's worth keeping alive. They set the table for us each time they play, and the glow of their sonic banquet is something to behold indeed.