July 5, 2002
By Andrew Gilbert

Jazz musicians are like alchemists, constantly searching for the elusive ingredient that will transform a disparate group of players into a galvanized band.

More than any other musician in the Bay Area, drummer Scott Amendola is a master of this arcane art. He seems to possess an ineffable gift that enables him to transmute every group in which he participates into a unique entity with an invigorating creative trajectory.

When describing his liaisons with other musicians, Amendola often starts with the phrase "from the very first note," reports of instant rapport that would strain credulity if they weren't echoed by the other players involved. Pianist Art Hirahara, a San Jose native now based in San Francisco, has been part of a cooperative trio with Amendola and bassist Todd Sickafoose for more than a year, a group that performs on Saturday at Campbell Recital Hall as part of the Stanford Jazz Festival. He recalls the first time the trio played together as "shocking," the connection was so immediately intense.

"The group has definitely opened up new areas for me as a player and a writer," Hirahara says. "Its so openly structured. There are some times we'll just play, not necessarily a song, just to see where it goes. Its definitely not a traditional straight ahead jazz group. We're not locked into any particular groove or style. There's the ability for anything to happen at any moment."

The three musicians have honed a highly flexible group approach during a steady Monday night gig at Bacar, a swanky San Francisco restaurant in the SOMA district that has turned into one of the city's leading jazz spot over the past year. The band has yet to make an album, but they plan to record their July 15 gig at Yoshi's and then go into the studio.

"The music keeps getting deeper and deeper, says Amendola, 33. "We've brought in our own tunes, and we do free improv. It's pretty magical. There's all this unspoken, instinctual playing that happens. We play a lot of standards too. I like having an outlet for that besides all the other stuff I do. Standards are a really big part of who I am and where I came from and why I got into this music in the first place.

Another side of Amendola will be on display when he returns to Campbell Recital Hall on July 19 for a Stanford Jazz Festival concert with CRATER, a band with Sickafoose, Los Angeles-based guitarist Nels Cline, and JHNO on electronics. The performance will also feature Carole Kim, an improvising video artist from L.A.

The relationship with Cline has become increasingly important for Amendola over the past two years. A creative catalyst on the Southern California music scene for more than two decades, Cline is widely revered by other musicians for his catholic taste, ranging from power rock gigs with bassist Mike Watt to free improv sessions with keyboardist Don Preston, an early associate of Frank Zappa.

"Nels has been around and he's a musicologist in his own way, Amendola says. "It's incredible to work with someone who's got such a wide musical sensibility.

Cline and Amendola first started playing together in the free improv ensemble Stinkbug (now L. Stinkbug). Their musical connection deepened when Cline started a new group to play his expansive compositions, The Nels Cline Singers, with bassist Devon Hoff, a band that recently released a spooky, provocative album on Cryptogramophone "Instrumentals." And when guitarist Dave Mac Nab had to leave Amendola's quintet, Cline joined Sickafoose, violinist Jenny Scheinman and saxophonist Eric Crystal in one of the most exciting working bands on the scene. The band recently finished recording its second album, and will be touring on the West Coast in September.

Given his extensive involvement with Amendola, Cline offers some insight into why Amendola seems to be at the center of so many of the most interesting bands. Stipulating his brilliance as a player and his musical flexibility, Cline notes that Amendola is remarkably self-possessed. "He totally has his [stuff] together. He takes care of business, and tends to be a lot of peoples dad. He has all these responsibilities, because he's able to handle things, so people rely on him."

Born and raised in the New Jersey suburb of Tenafly, just a stone's throw from New York City, Amendola was the kind of kid who showed an inclination for rhythm almost from the time he could walk. His grandfather, Tony Gottuso, was a highly respected guitarist who split his time between studio sessions and gigs with jazz luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Nat "King" Cole, so when Amendola began to get interested in jazz he had plenty of support on the home front.

"I used to bang on things as a kid," Amendola says. "I'd just sit around banging on pots and pans and coffee cans. When I was nine, we had to pick an instrument in school, and I started studying drums at school. I always loved music and I was really driven by drums and music in general."

His passion for music only deepened during his four years at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where it wasn't unusual for him to practice for 12 hours a day. Drawing inspiration from fellow students such as Jorge Rossi, Jim Black, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, Amendola decided he had to find his own voice, rather than modeling himself after established drummers. After graduating in 1992, he decided to move to San Francisco, where he quickly hooked up with Hunter.

"From the first gig we played together we had a really great hook up," Amendola says. "Ever since my grandfather I've just really loved the guitar and I wanted to meet a young guitar player who was doing something different. And you cannot get more different than what Charlie's doing."

While Hunter and many of the other players Amendola worked with in the early '90s have moved to New York, the drummer feels he's found the perfect environment here in the Bay Area. Of course, when you can find inspiration in as many different contexts as Amendola, it's a lot easier to keep things fresh.

"A lot of people feel this town can get dried up, but I feel it's not going to happen," Amendola says. "People come and they go, but there's a great community of people here, just really interesting and creative and unpredictable."



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