September 4, 2002
IN-DEMAND JAZZ DRUMMER SCOTT AMENDOLA
BRINGS HIS SOLO SHUFFLE TO SANTA CRUZ
By Rob Pratt
GREAT NEW IDEAS in music don't usually come from individual players.
They evolve as groups of players chart the outlines of a new sound,
not unlike research teams investigating new phenomena and reporting
their findings for peer review.
Such was the case during the 1990s, when the Bay Area jazz scene
turned out literally dozens of experimental bands that fused the
funky organ-trio sound of the 1960s with new pop sounds like rave,
hip-hop and even grunge. As this next-gen of jazz musicians honed
their unique approach, they crafted a street-wise, groove-positive
sound that stood in stark contract to the overweening seriousness
of most jazz records of the day.
Drummer Scott Amendola, born on the East Coast and schooled at Boston's
Berklee College of Music, found his way during the early 1990s to
the center of the scene. At San Francisco's Up and Down Club, he
landed his first steady gig, a regular turn with guitarist Charlie
Hunter and saxman Kenny Brooks, around whom circulated some of the
city's grooviest musical collectives. Soon Amendola joined Hunter's
jazz-rock band T.J. Kirk, finally taking a spot in the guitarist's
landmark namesake group when he expanded the lineup from a trio to
a quartet. Since then, Amendola has been there for Bay Area jazz
players whenever they seek to explore the outer reaches of the known
"The people who have influenced me the most are pretty much the
people I've played with," Amendola says by phone from his East Bay
home. "When I've had a chance to make music with them, I can see
how they operate and learn something from that."
That mind-set is immediately evident in the sound of the Scott Amendola
Band, an eclectic and adventurous quintet that he brings to the Kuumbwa
Jazz Center on Sept. 6. Though he's the bandleader and primary composer,
Amendola plays to create a shimmering texture around the sound of
the other instruments, driving hard when the groove needs to get
going, but also quick to back off and offer up ample space for soloists
to unwind their ideas.
"The music that I write isn't about me," he says. "I'm not the lead
instrument. But that's cool because I can divide things up — it
evens out the band more."
With saxophonist Eric Crystal, violinist Jenny
Scheinman and guitarist Nels Cline sharing melodic and solo duties,
and bassist Todd Sickafoose and Amendola laying down the rhythmic
foundation, the Scott Amendola Band can build a slow-burn New Orleans
street funk into a scene as grand and picturesque as San Francisco
Mayor Willie Brown strutting into City Hall through a nattering
California crowd of protesters. At other moments, the group wails
like the Grateful Dead on "Blues
for Allah," or glides along a bracing melody like a drive through
Big Sur along Highway 1.
The Man Who Was Jazz
Amendola's sound echoes many role models, from
Tony Williams to Jack DeJohnette to Dave Weckl, but he credits
a figure closer to home as a defining influence. Committed to a
musical career from an early age, Amendola quickly earned the attention
of his grandfather, a guitarist whose jazz career spanned from
the swing era to Frank Sinatra's hit version of "Hello Dolly" in
"He was jazz," Amendola says. "We used to play together a lot, and
his sound was really unbelievable — never any rambling. He
had a pure, strong tone — what a guitar should be — and
never a wasted note. Playing with him had a huge impact on me."
Looking for an opportunity to find his way in jazz after graduating
from the prestigious Berklee College of Music during the early 1990s,
Amendola met Bay Area-based guitarist Larry Grenadier and bassist
Kenny Wollesen in New York City. Soon he headed West.
"They said, 'Hey, call on these people in San Francisco — come
out and check it out,'" Amendola says. "I was happy to get off the
East Coast, because I was into more African music at the time, and
it seemed like there was more of that sensibility out here. Also,
I wanted to meet up with some interesting guitar players."
That last bit he's done with astonishing regularity — first
with Hunter and jazz-funk guitarist Wil Bernard and lately with Cline.
His latest experiments, however, involve electronics. As part of
Crater, Amendola provides rhythmic foil to Jhno, a DJ and keyboardist
who plays the Qwerty keyboard of a laptop computer to improvise electronic
soundscapes. And koto player Miya Masaoka inspired him to switch
"I put together a board of guitar effects, with distortion, loopers
and delays, and I sample myself playing through the microphone making
loops," he explains. "Some are in time, and sometimes they're just
soundscapes. Miya Masaoka had a bunch of stuff hooked up to her koto,
and she really hooked me. But she also warned, 'It can get very tedious — and