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Give the Drummer Some 

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

Wednesday, Aug 28 2002
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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.

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.

Throughout the record, Amendola exhibited a knack for composing far beyond the ken of most kitmen. He crafted his tunes by singing into a tape machine and then transcribing them using the piano, before presenting them to his band. He still employs this method today. Often, he says, the players will work out the harmonies together, with Amendola figuring out his own parts last.

"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 are drummers."

"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 Art Hirahara.)

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."

About The Author

David Cook

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