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Scott Free

In-demand jazz drummer Scott Amendola brings his solo shuffle to Santa Cruz

By Rob Pratt

GREAT NEW IDEAS in music don't usually come from individual players. They evolve as groups of players chart the outlines of a new sound, not unlike research teams investigating new phenomena and reporting their findings for peer review.

Such was the case during the 1990s, when the Bay Area jazz scene turned out literally dozens of experimental bands that fused the funky organ-trio sound of the 1960s with new pop sounds like rave, hip-hop and even grunge. As this next-gen of jazz musicians honed their unique approach, they crafted a street-wise, groove-positive sound that stood in stark contract to the overweening seriousness of most jazz records of the day.

Drummer Scott Amendola, born on the East Coast and schooled at Boston's Berklee College of Music, found his way during the early 1990s to the center of the scene. At San Francisco's Up and Down Club, he landed his first steady gig, a regular turn with guitarist Charlie Hunter and saxman Kenny Brooks, around whom circulated some of the city's grooviest musical collectives. Soon Amendola joined Hunter's jazz-rock band T.J. Kirk, finally taking a spot in the guitarist's landmark namesake group when he expanded the lineup from a trio to a quartet. Since then, Amendola has been there for Bay Area jazz players whenever they seek to explore the outer reaches of the known musical universe.

"The people who have influenced me the most are pretty much the people I've played with," Amendola says by phone from his East Bay home. "When I've had a chance to make music with them, I can see how they operate and learn something from that."

That mind-set is immediately evident in the sound of the Scott Amendola Band, an eclectic and adventurous quintet that he brings to the Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Sept. 6. Though he's the bandleader and primary composer, Amendola plays to create a shimmering texture around the sound of the other instruments, driving hard when the groove needs to get going, but also quick to back off and offer up ample space for soloists to unwind their ideas.

"The music that I write isn't about me," he says. "I'm not the lead instrument. But that's cool because I can divide things up--it evens out the band more."

With saxophonist Eric Crystal, violinist Jenny Scheinman and guitarist Nels Cline sharing melodic and solo duties, and bassist Todd Sickafoose and Amendola laying down the rhythmic foundation, the Scott Amendola Band can build a slow-burn New Orleans street funk into a scene as grand and picturesque as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown strutting into City Hall through a nattering California crowd of protesters. At other moments, the group wails like the Grateful Dead on "Blues for Allah," or glides along a bracing melody like a drive through Big Sur along Highway 1.

The Man Who Was Jazz

Amendola's sound echoes many role models, from Tony Williams to Jack DeJohnette to Dave Weckl, but he credits a figure closer to home as a defining influence. Committed to a musical career from an early age, Amendola quickly earned the attention of his grandfather, a guitarist whose jazz career spanned from the swing era to Frank Sinatra's hit version of "Hello Dolly" in the 1960s.

"He was jazz," Amendola says. "We used to play together a lot, and his sound was really unbelievable--never any rambling. He had a pure, strong tone--what a guitar should be--and never a wasted note. Playing with him had a huge impact on me."

Looking for an opportunity to find his way in jazz after graduating from the prestigious Berklee College of Music during the early 1990s, Amendola met Bay Area-based guitarist Larry Grenadier and bassist Kenny Wollesen in New York City. Soon he headed West.

"They said, 'Hey, call on these people in San Francisco--come out and check it out,'" Amendola says. "I was happy to get off the East Coast, because I was into more African music at the time, and it seemed like there was more of that sensibility out here. Also, I wanted to meet up with some interesting guitar players."

That last bit he's done with astonishing regularity--first with Hunter and jazz-funk guitarist Wil Bernard and lately with Cline. His latest experiments, however, involve electronics. As part of Crater, Amendola provides rhythmic foil to Jhno, a DJ and keyboardist who plays the Qwerty keyboard of a laptop computer to improvise electronic soundscapes. And koto player Miya Masaoka inspired him to switch to electronics.

"I put together a board of guitar effects, with distortion, loopers and delays, and I sample myself playing through the microphone making loops," he explains. "Some are in time, and sometimes they're just soundscapes. Miya Masaoka had a bunch of stuff hooked up to her koto, and she really hooked me. But she also warned, 'It can get very tedious--and very expensive.'"


The Scott Amendola Band plays the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, on Sept. 6 at 8pm. Tickets are $8 adv./$10 door; call 427.2227.

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From the September 4-11, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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