Scott Amendola: Unlimited Possibilities
When Scott Amendola sits down at his drum kit, almost anything can happen. That's not mere hyperbole; it's a fact. From his base in Berkeley, California, Amendola provides the rhythmic drive for some of the most creative and acclaimed ensembles in the jazz avant- garde, including the Nels Cline Singers and his own Scott Amendola Band. But he's also the road drummer for the phenomenally popular singer Madeleine Peyroux. Throw in his work with Charlie Hunter and the funky quartet T.J. Kirk, the electro-acoustic freedom of his ensemble CRATER, and a discography that's grown to nearly 70 albums in only 10 years, and it's easy to discern two key points about Amendola: that he's very much in demand, and that he likes to mix things up.
A prime example of this polyglot approach to music can be found on The Scott Amendola Band's 2005 release, Believe (on Cryptogramophone Records). In the course of nine tracks, Believe moves from an Americana feel to a Fela Kuti-inspired Afrobeat vibe, and even into outright noise, with multiple genres often squeezed into a single track. Reflecting on this eclecticism over lunch at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant a few blocks from his home, a wry smile plays over Amendola's face.
"It just happens that way," he says between bites of mock chicken. He is lean and bespectacled, with unruly curls atop his head and colorful tattoos on each arm. The smile rarely leaves his face. "Right now we're exposed to so much music, you can just turn on the radio or satellite radio and run through the channels and hear everything. And the younger generations, like our generation, have really come to like a lot of different music. So because I've been exposed to so many different things, and I like them, it all comes out in my own music."
"Like when I recorded Believe, [guitarist] Nels Cline was like, 'I don't know how you're going to sequence this, man,' because the tunes are all over the map. And there was a point when I stopped and thought, well this is... interesting. But then I figured, well, yeah. This is where I'm at. It'll work. And it did."
Pots, Pans & Coffee Cans
Finding a Path
Go West, Young Man
Charlie Hunter and T.J. Kirk
Three of a Kind: Amendola, Cline, Scheinman
What the Singer Wants
Amendola the Composer
The Political Angle
Moving Beyond the Music
Passing It On
Today and Tomorrow
The journey to this point began in Tenafly, New Jersey, the New York City suburb where Amendola grew up. An affinity for the drums came early: "I was banging on stuff when I was five or six years old," he says. "I'd take pots and pans and coffee cans and chopsticks, set 'em up and just bang. I just loved doing it. And then when I was nine I got to choose an instrument for the school band, and I chose the drums." But if drums were an inevitable choice for Amendola, jazz was not.
"I was listening to a lot of really bad music back then, a lot of top 40 radio, heavy metal. When I was eleven I wanted to be [Led Zeppelin drummer] John Bonham. But my grandfather, Tony Gottuso, he was a jazz guitarist, and he'd played with everybody. He was in the original Tonight Show Band; he'd worked with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, everybody. And he insisted that I take piano lessons for two years before I got serious about the drums. I hated studying the piano. I was such a terrible student! But I totally appreciate now that I did it, because it does help tremendously. And then I started listening to jazz, and I heard my grandfather play. And once we started playing together, that's when I really started to learn about time. My grandfather swung harder than anybody, and his musicality was on a really high level. He played circles around me."
An epiphany came in 1986, when Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman were together for Metheny's Song X tour. "I saw Metheny in New York every time he came to town, but it was always with the same band. I didn't know what Song X was all about." The blending of Metheny's sound with a giant of the avant-garde blew Amendola away. "I remember that night like it's right now. There was Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden and Ornette and Denardo [Coleman], and I just heard stuff I'd never heard before, I felt things I'd never felt before. That was when I realized that music could be anything. It was like walking through a door. But I didn't understand that right away, and I didn't know what to do with it until much later."
Amendola's playing evolved during four years spent at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he was part of a generation that included Kurt Rosenwinkel, Seamus Blake, and Luciana Souza. "I began to experiment on my own," he says. "I started improvising in my basement, really looking at my drums, focusing on them, and thinking, 'okay, I don't have to do this, I can do that instead.' It broke apart a lot of stuff in my head. I think there was a time when I wanted to be a New York studio drummer, and just do session work, then maybe break into something like the Letterman show band or Saturday Night Live or whatever. But now there was this creative element starting to come out. It was like a ringing in my head."
"I was really into Steely Dan and Dave Weckl back then. I copied everything Dave did. But I was also starting to listen to more of Ornette's stuff, and Keith Jarrett, and Miles Davis' late '60s and early '70s things. So there was this new feeling creeping into my drumming, and no matter what I did it was there."
He pauses as he identifies another pivotal moment. "When I was about 20, I auditioned for this mainstream band. I was in the basement getting ready and listening to their records, but by the second day I was thinking, 'man, I don't want to play this music this way. I don't want to play this at all.' So I decided to just learn the songs, and then figure out how to play them so they felt right to me. And when I went in to play with these guys, I started scraping cymbals and stopping the beat and doing all this stuff they weren't used to. I didn't get the gig, but I had a great time. I went back to Boston, and that's when I made up my mind. I decided that I was gonna learn who I was, and that I was gonna do what I was gonna do, with no second-guessing."
It was a bold decision, especially given the often-tenuous life of a jazz musician. Amendola recalls his first paying professional gig: "It was in Boston, at this place called the Middle East. I was with this vibraphonist, Philippe Cornaz. I think that was the first. Anyway, there was nobody there except my dad, who had just come up from New York. I remember sitting with him afterwards, when the owner came up and gave me like five bucks. And my dad turned to me and gave me this look and said, 'good luck!'"