Born: February 6, 1969 Primary Instrument: Drums
Music writer Derk Richardson’s oft-quoted observation that “If Scott Amendola didn’t exist the San Francisco music scene would have to invent him,” is more true than ever. But what’s become evident in recent years is that the extraordinarily resourceful drummer has evolved into a paragon of self-invention, a bandleader, composer and invaluable creative collaborator at the center of a vast array of improvisational ensembles.
While rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area scene, Amendola has woven a dense and far reaching web of bandstand relationships that tie him to influential figures in jazz, blues, groove, rock and new music. An organizer by nature, he has become a creative nexus for a community of musicians stretching from Los Angeles and Seattle to Chicago and New York.
While he first gained widespread notice a decade ago for his work in eight- string guitar ace Charlie Hunter’s trio, in recent years Amendola has stepped forward as the leader of several compelling bands that showcase his supremely supple trap work. He continues to work as a sideman, accompanying artists such as the tart-toned vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, guitarist and singer/songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps and the Nels Cline Singers (a volatile instrumental trio without a vocalist), but it’s as a bandleader that Amendola’s dynamic, ever-evolving style is best showcased.
A perfect example is a recent recording session for his next release (2005) as a bandleader featuring Los Angeles guitar hero Nels Cline and the visionary Chicago fret-master Jeff Parker, violinist Jenny Scheinman and stand-up bassist John Shifflett. The music is full of extreme dynamic shifts and a crunching rock edge, with Amendola adding textural electronic elements into his trap work via an effects pedal board. “I’m getting more into sonic things with the pedals, exploring noise, distortion and sonic textures by manipulating acoustic sounds. I sample myself live, and then whatever happens happens. It’s totally improvised, though I’m developing a vocabulary with it.”
The quintet isn’t a working band, but it captures the eclectic nature of Amendola’s sound, with its peculiar mix of electric and acoustic instruments. It’s not jazz-fusion in any traditional sense, rather the group draws without prejudice from a huge array of influences, moving effortlessly from dense, thundering rock to lilting, melodically driven song-like pieces.“I feel like my whole thing as a leader has been about trying to put all this stuff together,” Amendola says. “This new band is just strings and percussion, with acoustic bass, violin and two guitars. I don’t mind playing a song that sounds like Crazy Horse, or a tune that Nels refers to as the Pacific Jazz Quintet, with an old school West Coast jazz vibe.”
In many ways, the new quintet is an offshoot of the original Scott Amendola Band, the group that cemented the drummer’s reputation as a bandleader with a captivating aural vision. The original quintet’s unusual instrumentation of saxophones, violin, acoustic bass, electric guitar and trap set gave the band a signature sound, while Amendola’s open-ended compositions grew out of captivating grooves from Afrobeat to off-kilter funk to Ornette Coleman inspired jazz pieces to lush ballads.
Cline wasn’t on hand for the band’s eponymous debut album in 1999, but he contributed to the quintet’s combustible chemistry on the 2003 Cryptogramophone album “Cry.” For Cline, Amendola’s surging creative energy was apparent at their initial encounter. “The first time I heard Scott I was really blown away,” Cline says. “There aren’t too many drummers on the West Coast who had his wide ranging ability. Scott’s got some funk in him, a looser, sexy thing going on, and the flexibility to play free and different styles. He plays behind singer/songwriters and he rocks too.”
Now that Cline is spending most of his time on the road with Wilco, Amendola has taken his band in yet a new direction, exploring the transparent, unplugged dynamics of a chamber ensemble. The latest incarnation of Amendola’s band is a quartet called ‘Scott Amendola Band-Chambers of Grace’, featuring bassist John Shifflett, violinist Jenny Scheinman and Art Hirahara on piano and Fender Rhodes. The band’s book is similar to Amendola’s old quintet, with some instrumental covers. But the band’s repertoire is mostly made up of Amendola’s engaging original tunes, pieces that are so well crafted they can work as high-velocity fusion or as gentle, folk-like themes.
“Chambers of Grace is the acoustic version of my band,” Amendola says. “The irony being the Rhodes isn’t acoustic, but it’s as close as you can get without a digital piano, and I don’t want that. I’d much rather have another sound that will complement the violin really well. It’s more of a chamber group but it’s also an orchestra. It could also be a little more Keith Jarrett, jazzy and acoustic, or from the Carter Family to a string quartet.”
Chambers of Grace recently recorded a live performance at Yoshi’s that is slated for release sometime in late 2005. The group has turned into a particularly effective showcase for Scheinman, whose career has flourished through her work with guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist/composer Myra Melford since she relocated from the Bay Area to Brooklyn five years ago. “His compositions have very strong and clear and accessible melodies,” Scheinman says. ”Every tune is based on a drum part that he really enjoys playing, and when Scott’s happy there’s so much joy coming out of him.”
Around the Bay Area, Amendola explores the many facets of his expansive rhythmic sensibility in an intriguing series of small combos. As a jazz player, for instance, he’s performed extensively with the cooperative group ‘plays Monk’, a trio featuring clarinetist Ben Goldberg and bassist Devin Hoff that focuses on the brilliant, knotty composition of modern jazz giant Thelonious Monk. “We’ve created certain moods for tunes, more than developing set arrangements,” Amendola says. “What really makes the trio its own thing and opens up possibilities is the lack of a chordal instrument. We’ve all played and listened to a lot of Thelonious Monk. One could really study Monk’s music for a lifetime.”
There’s also the new potent groove trio with the blazing Hammond B3 newcomer Wil Blades and the brilliant guitarist Will Bernard, whose relationship with Amendola dates back to their days in the fondly recalled T.J. Kirk. In a more straight-ahead vein, Amendola has been performing in a trio version of his band with guitarist Dave Mac Nab, an original member of the Scott Amendola Band, and Shifflett on acoustic bass. While the group’s sound continues to evolve, it keys on Mac Nab’s lean, clean sound, which mostly eschews effects and distortion. “That trio is definitely more inside,” Amendola says. “There are sonic textures, and Dave does use some pedals, but it’s really about songs and melodies and chords more than soundscapes.”
Soundscapes are the focus of the improvisational acoustic-electronic group known as CRATER, Amendola’s collaboration with laptop artist JNHO. They first worked together in the band Wavelord, which was a group more focused on composition. CRATER is an improv-centric ensemble that has utilized a revolving cast of players, most notably Nels Cline, though at various times the group has featured violinist Carla Kihlstedt, and cellists Matt Brubeck and Marika Hughes as well as guitarists Avi Bortnick and Will Bernard. On a number of occasions the group has turned into a multimedia project with visual artist Carole Kim. In many ways, CRATER has become the locus of Amendola’s most ambitious musical thinking. “I want to do Huge CRATER,” he says, “with a visual artist, and a string section featuring Carla and Marika and with Devin Hoff on contrabass, a horn section consisting of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet and Ben Goldberg, and the rhythm section with a guitar player, using section leaders to organize the improvisation.”
Amendola's past musical connections are vast and varied, including recordings, tours and performances with artists such as Bill Frisell, Wadada Leo Smith, Shweta Jhaveri, Larry Goldings, Jeff Parker, Sex Mob, Larry Klein, Darryl Johnson, Carla Bozulich, Robin Holcomb and the Joe Goode Dance Group, Wayne Horvitz, Johnny Griffin, Viktor Krauss, Tony Furtado, Julian Priester, Jessica Lurie, Sonny Simmons, ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Pat Martino, Peter Apfelbaum, Jim Campilongo, Bobby Black, Paul McCandless, Ben Goldberg, Noe Venable, and Mark Turner. He considers all of these formative experiences, but singles out a few gigs as particularly inspiring, including a six-week European tour with pianist Jacky Terrasson, and a performance at the Jazzschool in Berkeley with saxophonist Dave Liebman that was documented on a live recording. He also mentions exploring the music of Masada with John Zorn, recording with Vancouver-based piano master Paul Plimley and bassist Lisle Ellis, and touring in Europe with trumpeter Jack Walrath. Jack's whole thing is he’s constantly playing, he’s constantly part of the music, Amendola explains. When you’re a horn player you tend to do your solo and then sit back, but he was always injecting ideas and keeping the intensity up.
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 moment he could walk. His grandfather Tony Gottuso, a highly respected guitarist who split his time between studio sessions, was a member of the original Tonight Show Band under Steve Allen, and would do gigs with jazz luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Nat “King” Cole, offered plenty of support when Amendola began to get interested in jazz. “We used to play together a lot when I was a teenager. It had a huge impact on me to play with someone who was around when a lot of the standards that musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Keith Jarrett play.”
“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.” 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, and studying with the likes of Joe Hunt and Tommy Campbell, 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 Charlie Hunter. They went on to play together with John Schott and Will Bernard in the three-guitar-and-drums funk jazz super group T.J. Kirk that was nominated for a Grammy in 1996.
“From the first gig we played together Charlie and I had a really great hook-up,” Amendola says. “Ever since I played with 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 can’t get more different than what Charlie’s doing.”
While Hunter and many of the other players Amendola worked with in the 90s have moved to New York, the drummer feels he’s found the perfect environment in the San Francisco Bay Area. With creative relationships spreading out across the country, he’s never more than one degree away from a powerful musical hook-up.
Source: Andrew Gilbert
Steven Raphael, Modern Drummer magazine.