Give the Drummer Some

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

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."

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