Give the Drummer Some

Scott Amendola is a rare bird -- a jazz drummer who writes his own material and leads his own band

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 Nels Cline.

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 Gattuso, 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 our time."

Grandpa Gattuso -- 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 recordings Ready ... 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.

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