August 28, 2002
GIVE THE DRUMMER SOME
By David Cook
On the evolutionary food chain of the music scene, drummers have
to rank near the bottom, right between roadies and unruly fans. Drummers
can be flaky, undependable, and prone to suddenly moving to, say,
Los Angeles, destroying a band's chemistry and continuity. Sure,
there have been timekeepers in jazz and rock who've provided a steady,
solid foundation, even fronting groups to fine effect -- Max Roach,
Jack DeJohnette, and Leon Parker among them. By and large, though,
drummers are more likely to be the butt of derisive jokes than the
centerpiece of dynamic musical outfits. That truism is especially
apt in the Bay Area improv jazz scene, where musicians come together
with all the fidelity and staying power of free-agent ballplayers,
hanging around long enough for a gig and a couple of recording sessions
before moving on to the next project.
It's refreshing, then, to come across a drummer like Scott Amendola.
Admittedly, Amendola has the typical percussionist's promiscuity,
playing in no fewer than three regular bands, with several other
projects on the side. One night he rocks steady behind pop songstress
Noe Venable; another evening he melts through an electro-noise free-improv
set with Crater or performs old-timey jazz with a trio at Bacar.
But unlike the stereotypical kitman who might show up, hack his way
through a set of unfamiliar tunes, grab his paycheck, and split,
the 33-year-old Amendola possesses staying power and an impressive
ear for groove and melody, one that allows him to weave order out
of chaos and raise ordinary jams to the level of high art. Already
he's proven he can anchor the rhythm section in such high-profile
projects as the Charlie Hunter Quartet and T.J. Kirk, and hang with
accomplished masters such as guitarist John Schott and clarinetist
Ben Goldberg. These days, he's also displaying his melodic gifts
-- and his compositional skills -- in his own ensemble, which features
highly sought-after violinist Jenny Scheinman and L.A. guitar savant
Amendola's unusual talents, as well as his affinity for working
with top-notch guitar players, can be traced to his childhood. While
his parents were not musical, his grandfather, Tony Gottuso, had
been a fairly well-known guitarist in his day.
"He played with Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, toured with Sinatra,
played banjo on 'Hello, Dolly' with Louis Armstrong," says Amendola
in a phone interview from his Berkeley home. "He played on The Tonight
Show for five or six years when Steve Allen had it in New York, played
with Joe Venuti, Ben Webster."
While most kids were lucky if their grandfathers
took them to ballgames, Amendola's brought him to jam sessions. "He blew me away when we
played," says Amendola. "I'm just drawn to that instrument. [The
guitar] speaks volumes to me -- of our generation, that music we
came up with, from heavy metal to jazz ... it's the instrument of
Grandpa Gottuso -- who Amendola says was a "jingle king" as well,
known for penning the famous Maxwell House ditty -- also imbued the
youngster with an appreciation for melody and song, insisting that
he study piano for two years before focusing on drums. At the same
time Amendola indulged in all the usual teenage cock-rock groups,
and admits to a continuing love of AC/DC, Sonic Youth, and Rush. "I
was listening to Led Zeppelin II and IV all the time, and AC/DC's Back
in Black -- I wore that out," Amendola says of high
school. "But then at the same time I was listening to jazz and going
to Pat Metheny concerts." When some of Amendola's more modern timekeeping
influences -- Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins -- began
to creep into the family jam sessions, Amendola says his grandfather
told him, "'You play all this crazy shit, but it's great.' He loved
it, he loved where I was taking the drums."
Amendola's eclectic training paid off soon
after moving to San Francisco in 1992, when guitarist Charlie Hunter
asked him to fill in for a show. "He called me on Saturday morning the day of his gig Above
Paradise, and I had a gig that night which I got out of, because
I had been hearing about Charlie and wanted to play with him," Amendola
recalls. The experience was a revelation. "I was more of a jazz than
a funk player, and Charlie was more of a funk player than jazz," Amendola
says. "Somehow we met at this place, and we started trading ideas,
and it was awesome."
The type of "acid jazz" that resulted -- mixing
not only jazz and funk, but rock, hip hop, and soul -- catapulted
Hunter from underground legend to national phenomenon. Amendola
became his regular drummer in time to play on Hunter's major-label
... Set ... Shango!, Natty Dread,
and Return of the Candyman. He also supplied
beats for T.J. Kirk, a quartet made up of Hunter, Will Bernard, and
John Schott, which performed compositions by Thelonious Monk, James
Brown, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and was nominated for a Grammy in
1997 for the album If Four Was One.
But when the Berkeley-born Hunter moved to
New York that year, Amendola stayed put. "He knew I didn't want to go back there," Amendola says, "[but]
I knew he wanted to go. We both felt like we needed a break musically." Besides,
Amendola had become immersed in the local scene, developing musical
relationships with Schott, Goldberg, and saxophonist Eric Crystal,
among many others. A fixture at such underground venues as the Luggage
Store and the now-defunct Beanbenders, Amendola was a source of energy
and optimism in a music scene that was going through more ups and
downs than a bipolar patient sans medication.
Then, in 1998, he boldly went where (relatively) few drummers had
gone before, starting his own group to play his own compositions.
The resulting album, Scott Amendola Band,
self-released in 2000, was chock-full of the type of musical anomalies
Amendola reveled in. Groovy funk and blues jams sizzled beside poignant,
melodic tunes; Amendola layered flurries of beats behind, over, and
around sax player Crystal, who wailed like Albert Ayler. Amendola's
choice of covers -- Nick Drake's "One of These Things First," Fela
Kuti's "This Is Sad," and Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" -- helped
showcased the range and breadth of his craft as well. But perhaps
the record's most impressive achievement was how easily it synthesized
free-form jazz, funk, and pop into a satisfying, cohesive whole,
with Amendola displaying a touch for the ballad and hook that would've
made his grandpa proud.
"It was hard at first," he says of overcoming other
musicians' resistance to the compositions of a drummer. "I've had
a couple of bad experiences where I brought stuff to people, and
they copped attitudes. But that's kind of changed; everyone I work
with is really supportive."
"Scott is one of the few drummers around who doesn't sound locked
into one style," writes Crystal via e-mail. "He definitely knows
how to play all these different styles and make them sound good."
As for the notion that a drummer can't lead
a band, Los Angeles' Nels Cline, who is quickly gaining a reputation
as the experimental guitarist of the moment and who will appear
on the Amendola Band's upcoming sophomore effort, scoffs. "Bobby Previte, Jim Black, Stanton
Moore, Joey Baron, Paul Motion," he says via e-mail, clicking off
the names of drummers who've led ensembles over the years. "Need
I continue? Young or old, the only difference/challenge would be
their music, their personalities as leaders, not the fact that they
"See, this is the really great part," adds Crystal. "I
feel Scott doesn't really lead the band so much. What he does is
allow all these great musicians to bring his music alive the best
way they know how. ... This is what all the great band leaders
have done: Work with great musicians, and let them do their thing."
Of all those players, it's no wonder that another guitarist -- in
this case, Cline -- looms largest in Amendola's current crop of collaborators.
Amendola first met Cline in 1997, when the axeman asked him to join
L. Stinkbug, a free-form noise ensemble with instruments such as
egg whisks, toys, and electric drink stirrers. Since then Amendola
has convinced his pal to form the Nels Cline Singers, a trio with
him and contrabassist Devin Hoff that churns out bluesy, thrash-oriented
numbers. Cline also sits in occasionally with Crater, an experimental
electronic-jazz group featuring Amendola, synth-master jhno, and
bassist Todd Sickafoose. But most significantly Cline has influenced
the direction of the Amendola Band, bringing his more abstract, free-form
style to the new recordings. (Amendola also plays every Monday night
at Bacar with a straight jazz trio featuring Sickafoose and pianist
Even with all these projects, however, Amendola says he could be
lured away if the right metal band called.
"I was searching around the radio and found this AC/DC song," Amendola
admits. "And I left it on -- it was killing."
What if that group rang him tomorrow and was
in need of a drummer? "That
would be a tough one," he laughs. "I'd have to think about it."