SCOTT AMENDOLA'S MUSICAL ORBIT
By Sue Ann Roberts
Scott Amendola’s life as a drummer-about-town
could induce vertigo.
The range of genres, arrangements, grooves, non-grooves, and the
sheer number of players with whom he works can be dizzying. But sit,
listen, and breathe in his very musical approach to his instrument,
and the peripatetic blur changes to an utterly grounded focus which
the senses accept without question. Amendola emits a creativity,
adaptability and solidity that makes whatever music is underway more
This quality is distributed across a pretty scary number of groups,
tours and record dates. How does this guy glue it all together with
such grace, fresh ideas and good vibes?
A Song By Any Other Name
The operating system that unifies Amendola’s
approach to projects as diverse as folk, un-scored improvisation,
groove music, standards and other musical adventures is deceptively
simple: Play The Song.
Easy to say, yet a musical lifetime can be
devoted to exploring the quest. A given song, or a passage in an
improvisational flow, contains an essence that finds its richest
expression when players focus on its unique elements – the rhythm, harmonic, melodic,
textural and emotional potential that grows out of that essence.
Complex or simple, dense or sparse, it can take years to find out
how to give one’s musical self over to, in any given moment,
playing the song. It appears Amendola’s musical evolution has
been about this pursuit.
He started shedding in junior high and high school in the Jersey/New
York area under an old-school jazz drummer, listened to everything
from standards through through rock through the evolution of both
forms, studied in Boston at Berklee, then settled in to work in the
Bay Area in the early nineties.
In addition to touring and recording for several years with the Charlie
Hunter Group, Amendola has worked with an amazing array
of artists live and in the studio. The list includes jazz luminaries
like Mingus alum Jack Walrath, as well as colleagues
among the incredibly talented creative musicians who have been
developing in this locale and are now moving into national and
international arenas -- John Schott, Ben
Goldberg, Adam Levy, Jenny Scheinman, Trevor
Dunn, and more.
Amendola has also supported creative songwriters whose roots reach
into the folk/rock-based world. And he is currently involved in some
highly original sound-crafting with LA guitarist Nels Cline.
"I have this way of thinking that music is music, and it’s
all the same. [laugh] That’s very debatable, and it’s
one way to look at it. It comes from the fact that I grew up listening
to so many different kinds of music."
What goes for genres also goes for what some say is a dichotomy
between playing parts vs. improvising.
"Playing a part can feel as free as improvising, because, if there’s
a song structure and a certain part makes musical sense, then it
can be as satisfying as improvising, and as listening. I don’t
mind repeating musical ideas when they make sense. So, if I’m
improvising, I’m thinking melodies and interaction, and when
I’m not improvising, I’m thinking the same way."
John Schott, an inventive guitarist and composer,
has been playing with Amendola since his arrival on the Bay Area
scene over seven years ago in projects that include Grammy-nominated TJ
Kirk, the Snorkel sessions, ShufflePlay and
"As a composer I've known that he could read
anything I'd put in front of him, that he would practice whatever
needed to be practiced, would make very helpful suggestions in
terms of the realization of the musical ideas, and would bring
to the rehearsal and the performance a real positive energy. And
someone who's capable of grooving so deeply makes my job easy.
It's hard to sound bad when someone's so good.
"Also, with someone who grooves that hard and deeply," adds Schott, "you
can't help but want to give that kind of attention to the groove
Ben Goldberg, a close colleague
of both musicians and a deeply talented improviser on clarinet,
agrees. "He's a remarkably
resourceful, imaginative musician. Always very enthusiastic about
what he's up to, and about participating in other people's projects.
He brings just such a beautiful spirit to the music that I always
find it an absolute pleasure to work with him."
A Label of His Own
Amendola released "Band" with the Scott Amendola
Band in late '99 on his own label, Artofmyheart, with local producer Cookie
Marenco. Amendola's originals and a couple of covers showcase
the quintet's blend of voices -- the timbers of Dave MacNab's
guitar sounds, Eric Crystal's sax tones and Jenny
Scheinman's violin vocabulary.
Todd Sickafoose (bass) and Amendola hold the tapestry
together with an intuitive synergy. The pocket is seamlessly in time,
yet the net rhythmic effect is extremely breathable. Simple harmonic
structures underscore arrangements that move fluidly through instrumental
combinations and emotional exploration.
Amendola's broad tastes are in evidence, from
the large-hipped, low-to-the-ground "57th St. Blues" to the contemplative, moody ballad
in nine "Redlacquer Blue"; from the laid-back funk groove over a
subtle meter pattern in "Slow Zig", to the wide-open arrhythmic passion
of the anthem "Hymn." A bit of Bill Frisell sensibility
shows up, with Scheinman's playing buoying the passages into the
band’s unique territory. The Jimi Hendrix tune "Manic
Depression" gets a laid-back treatment, nicely languishing in the
elastic melodic line. Fela's African high-life tune
is morphed into an improvisational instrumental in "This Is Sad."
Amendola’s constant musical exploration
naturally makes him feel an urge to produce more music in the studio.
The challenge is finding the time, but he plans record new material
with the Amendola Band soon.
Have Kit Will Travel
Catching a few of Scott’s gigs within a short span of days
is like walking through a doorway into an entire city of musicians.
The path started off at Amendola’s Oakland home where he hosted
a cozy solo bass house concert for long-time musical pal Trevor
Dunn (now of Brooklyn). His personal connections weaving
through the local music community was clearly evident. This confidence
and warmth is a palpable part of what Amendola carries with him and
unpacks at every gig along with his drums -- a smile, a readiness,
practical creativity, and an intense musical energy.
At the iMusic space in Oakland, a new venture exploring live webcasting
of concerts, The Scott Amendola Band opened for the Seattle trio Living
Daylights with Jessica Lurie. Amendola’s
set list wound its way through ever-morphing and thoroughly developed
improvisations on original material, with album-mates Sickafoose
on bass, Crystal on saxophones and MacNab on guitar.
Amendola crafted a lovely intro by using his
hands on his traps skins with Crystal’s soprano, followed
by a swinging traps solo moving into a Prime Time-ish guitar groove.
Next came a ballad full of harmonic color with a graceful bass
line in 9/4, creatively laid out by Sickafoose.
Amendola respects his bassist’s work immensely. "Todd Sickafoose
is someone who can take a part, always go back to it, but really
explore all the possibilities within that part. It’s a really
challenging thing to do."
Next up was a full-on fusion piece, fast and
dense, full with cymbals, the guitar and alto vibrating melodies
in the same pitch range. The piece morphed into free time yet retained
a fast tempo, with the guitar taking on a tamboura-like drone.
Then came a slow Chicago-style blues, with a full range of alto
tricks from Crystal, and MacNab’s
guitar working in reverb.
"Hymn," a ballad with a deceptively simple
melody, was dedicated to the recently deceased Billy Higgins, with
rumbling mallets on the skins.
The following month, Amendola recorded in Seattle
with Living Daylights’ Lurie. "It
was a very fun record to make, some crazy meters. Not sure yet who
will release it."
Cut from the cavernous space of iMusic to the intimate upstairs
coffeehouse room at 50 Oak Street, Amendola, with Chris Kee on
bass, supported Jane Selke’s talented songwriting
and strong vocal presence.
In this scaled-down situation, the capacity
for simplicity, creativity, and "playing the song" stood out. Amendola finds inspiration in working
with this folk-based unit. "They’re really open to my ideas,
very musical, and Jane's voice is very pure."
Amendola is has recording and touring with another popular singer-songwriter, Noe
"The song will define. If there’s vocals, or a singer and
lyrics, the band is there to support that. A good song stands on
its own. In any situation, you’re there to support each other,
and not sort of dominate the music. Both Jane and Noe are amazing
song writers. It’s about coming up with parts that work. And
there’s a freedom within those parts, in each situation. But
it’s about the song."
Sonic Emanations from the City of Angels
Singing implies the bandwidth of human emotion, a concept cleverly
borrowed by the entirely instrumental trio The Nels Cline
Singers, singing indeed with their respective axes. Cline,
the creative guitar wunderkind from L.A., is teaming up with Amendola
and Devon Hoff on bass regularly these days to forge
some groundbreaking exploration of the terrain bordered by electronic
experimentation, rock, fusion, groove –- quite simply, a very
free and expressive exploration of the elements of music each of
the three strong players brings to the table from an already full
past. They are recording their first CD presently for Cryptogramaphone,
scheduled for release in early 2002.
Bay Area fans were able to take their pick
of several evenings at Café du Nord alternating between Cline’s and Amendola’s
respective bands. The room filled with people thirsty for beer and
something engaging to put their ears to, and weren’t disappointed
on either score. The material both bands presented showed a courage
to present sounds clearly outside the norms of what should or should
not be played in a bar, or a more esoteric experimental music scene,
or in a jazz situation. Unabashedly they went about the business
of communicating the trajectories on which their musicianship is
taking them, with sweat and heart, and seemingly without a trace
The L.A – Bay Area connection is part of Amendola’s
routine these days. He raves about the club Rocco on Santa Monica
Blvd., ground zero for creative jazz in Southern California it seems.
Both he and Cline are becoming regulars there in various units.
Breath and Color
One of the Bay Area’s most evolved pianists, Art Hirahara met
Amendola through bassist Sickafoose, who had called the trio together
for a gig at the Black Cat in North Beach last fall. They have been
a unit ever since, appearing regularly at the Bacar restaurant’s
trio and blowing-session scene, and taking the stage as Hirahara
Trio at the San Jose Jazz Festival.
Says Hirahara, "The first time I played with him what impressed
me was his ability to adapt to the moment. I’ve played with
a lot of drummers, and very few are able to change on a dime, depending
on what the conditions of the improvisation warrant. This gives us
the freedom to go any direction, and because of that, the music will
go naturally where it goes.
"I find that to be one of Scott’s great strong points – the
feel doesn’t necessarily have to be locked into any certain
groove. When we start a song, we might start it out in a swing feel,
but who knows if it will end that way. He’s completely at home
in the jazz medium, and I’m sure infuses his playing with other
perspectives that someone who strictly did jazz might not think about.
And I think that’s part of the reason he’s so adaptive –-
that he can gauge what the musical situation is and take any of his
experiences he’s had in his other settings and apply them tastefully
in the jazz setting."
The trio gives Amendola the opportunity to express one of his favorite
musical forms, the ballad.
"I have to play ballads, I love to play ballads. I feel it’s
a really important thing to get people used to, again, instead of
just hitting them over the head with barrages of notes and grooves
all night. Because I think people like ballads. It’s a breath,
it’s a moment, it’s pretty introspective, and I think
people like to go there. I like to go there -- I could play ballads
all night. Which is maybe odd for a drummer, but I love them."
Ballads do give Amendola plenty of space to play melodically.
"Like that song my band plays, 'Redlaquer Blue' -- it sort of evolved
into me playing this free cymbal thing. I just think that’s
the shit people should be listening to, as well as the other stuff.
Music is so broad, there’s so many possibilities."
Amendola seems to show up everywhere to keep the live music happening
on all fronts, sharing news updates through his website. He was on
hand for John Schott at a sidewalk gig for the city of Berkeley,
and there for composer/pianist Graham Connah’s
CD release party at Tuva Space in south Berkeley with Evander Music
label exec and inventive saxophonist Phillip Greenlief.
Obviously Amendola’s enthusiasm, personal support, and solid
musicianship is a big part of what’s making the Bay Area cook.
A Lineage of Song
What path led Amendola to his synthesis of knowledge, confidence
"My grandfather, Tony Gottuso, played guitar --
he started in the 30's, in the Bronx. He played with everybody from Ella
Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Nat King
Cole. He's on the original 'Hello Dolly' with Louis
Armstrong. And he played on 'The Tonight Show' from '52
to '57, toured with Sinatra, recorded with Joe
Venuti. He was a great guitar player -- we used to play
together, it was really fun."
"He is somebody who really taught me about song, because he loved
playing with singers. He also used to arrange a lot of big band music,
and did a lot of jingles -- he was known as the jingle king in New
York for awhile. He's on this record called "Pioneers of Jazz Guitar," this
classic record on the Yazoo label. But he just would always play
"When we'd play together, starting when I was
about thirteen, he'd take a standard and play the melody, then
take like one single-note style solo, then he'd play a chord solo,
then we'd do what he called toss-backs, which would be trading
fours, then he'd take the head and play the melody out. He hooked
me up with a teacher, Sonny
Igoe, and I studied with him for six years."
"One record that really changed my life was
the Chick Corea record ‘Live
In Europe’, with Roy Haynes and Miroslav
Vitous. Now, my teacher was very much big band & swing, Buddy
Rich, four on the floor, two and four on the hi-hat, ride
pattern straight. So then I heard this record, and listened to Roy
Haynes just dancing around, with a deep pocket, but the
hi-hat was kind of all over the place, and the bass drum was just
playing accents here and there.
"The next time I went in for a lesson, and I was playing along to
this music, I just did that, and Sonny was like ‘What are you
doing?’ And I said ‘Roy Haynes - check him out.’ As
if this guy hadn't heard of Roy Haynes before. But he just kept saying
'Listen to Buddy Rich.' So I'd do that for him, but also started
getting into a more loose, open way of playing the drums.
"My grandfather's favorite drummer of all time
Tough, who was like the metronome, amazing feel, great
time. He wasn't into Elvin or Coltrane,
but he had played with them at some point on 'The Tonight Show,'
they were all on. So after we'd play, he'd say, 'Man, you play
all that crazy shit, but I love playing with you.' Pretty funny.
He loved the Beatles, he just loved playing songs, a great improviser,
just really great to play music with.
"I was also into Pat Metheny, and whenever he was
playing in New York, my high school friend and I would go in. So
in 1986 we went to the 'Song X' show at Town Hall, with Charlie
Haden, and Ornette and Pat, and Jack
DeJohnette and Denardo Coleman -- that
show that changed my life. DeJohnette just completely blew me away
-- the whole concept of time, and expression within improvisation,
which I didn't really understand at the time, but was just stunned
by the music I heard.
"Coleman did this free solo on an electronic
drum set for about ten or fifteen minutes, and it just really hit
me hard. Just the idea of sort of melody within melody, there was
just this way of ideas just flowing. I liked the freeness, especially
how Jack just seemed so free in his playing.
"And then I went off to Berklee in '87. I studied
Hunt, who had played on a bunch of George Russell records
-- someone who really opened up the drum set."
Jazz Is… Not?
Evolving from this foundation into his current array of projects,
Amendola has come to feel strongly about how he views the intersection
of the making of music with the marketing of music.
"I grew up listening to AC/DC and Ornette
Coleman and John Coltrane, it's just
the times. Jazz is in there, but jazz doesn't define who I am.
"I love jazz, and I play jazz, but I think
that 'jazz' has evolved. And, I think the term 'jazz' has become
a marketing tool. There's people who play jazz, and that's cool,
but if people ask me how to describe my band, I feel stumped.
"Because, we play music. We play elements of
jazz, and we improvise over melodies and grooves and things, spirituals,
hymns, and folk too. But we're forced to talk about 'jazz' because
of how jazz is marketed - anybody that's improvising is supposedly
"But to me, we're just improvising around melodies
and stuff. And that's what they were doing originally in jazz,
but now jazz implies something else. The term has become a way
to categorize and sell records.
"So you might see a record by someone like Myra Melford,
and the record company might put on the back 'file under jazz'. And
it's just because they'll listen to it, and they won't know what
the hell it is. Which is great. But then they file it under ‘jazz'. John
Zorn said one of his big goals is to get an experimental
section in record stores, and he's succeeding.
"I remember in the 80s, a Sting record won some kind of readers’ poll
in a jazz category. So, what does that mean? Why do we call that,
or anything, jazz? I think a hundred years from now, maybe people
like Ellington, Bird, Miles, Gil
Evans, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong will
be known as improvisers and composers -- maybe they'll just be thought
of as American composers. I just sort of want to look at it like
we're beyond jazz.
"Miles Davis was a huge Frank Sinatra fan,
but he was also a huge Willie Nelson fan. But people
say ‘Oh, this is jazz, and this is all you're supposed to play
and all you're supposed to listen to.’ But go through the
course of history, all these great musicians and composers, and you’ll
find that they listened to everything and they were influenced by
everything. It's just other forces that have to put this stamp on
"For example, I think Brad Mehldau is a genius.
He's a pianist, he has this incredible trio, and he plays Radiohead songs
all the time. He's an improviser, and he's one of the most articulate
musicians of our time, if you read his liner notes.
"He's in the forefront of this movement of improvised music. But
he's been tagged as being influenced by certain music that he never
really listened to, or that he just feels like that's not where I'm
coming from - and he's constantly having to defend himself. He's
totally embraced by the jazz audience because he plays standards.
But man, he's got his own voice within these standards. To me, It’s
not jazz, it's just beyond it."
But Does It Swing?
When asked about the what, how and why of swing, Amendola is not
at a loss for enthusiasm.
"Swing is a matter of groove and time and feel
-- there's magic between people playing together. Duke Ellington's
band, I mean, Duke just had this way of picking his players that
had these voices that just made this band. It was so special.
"Jackie Terrasson, Ugonna Okegwo and Leon
Parker have this really special hookup together, a way
of interpreting time. Brad Meldau and Larry
Grenadier and Jorge Rossi move in a way
that's just really unique. Medeski Martin and Wood,
or Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Joe
Lovano -- they have an incredibly special connection together.
Or Charlie [Hunter] and me, or me and Todd
[Sickafoose], or John [Shott] or Ben
[Goldberg]. I feel like we each have this amazing hookup
- you just find these people you can play with, and it's like home. John
Schott's like one of my oldest musical relationships.
It's like, oh, I remember this. It just works.
"And I feel like this new trio with Nels Cline and Devon
Hoff is this way. There's just an understanding, and it's
just magic. And Jenny Scheinman, when I play music
with her, it's just, she's my soul sister, no questions asked.
"Or Adam Levy -- it's so easy to play music with
him. Or this new trio, with Art Hirahara and Todd,
Art's this genius piano player, and after the first gig we just were
looking at each other thinking to ourselves, ok, this is something."
The playing speaks louder than words. The song is the groove, and
the groove supports the song. The players are the chemistry, and
the chemistry is the swing. The community is a living, breathing
thing, and can best be enjoyed live. It all starts with a bit of
cymbal work or a hand-drum intro or a dense wave of sound splashing
across the kit.
Let the song begin.