Scott Amendola: Unlimited Possibilities
Another bold move came after Amendola's graduation from Berklee in 1992. He decided to forsake the New York jazz scene for the San Francisco Bay Area. He was lured west by a relationship, which didn't last. "I knew it was going to fall apart," he says today, "but I wanted to leave New Jersey, get away from New York. I'd visited San Francisco and loved it, and I had a bunch of names of people out here. So I just decided it was time."
Once he arrived, Amendola was never motivated to look back. "It was really liberating. The tradition of the Bay Area is one of creativity. Whether you're talking about jazz or rock or punk or funk, the vibe here is always one of creativity and branching out. And you always meet people here who are willing to cross over and play in different scenes with different musicians. It's what music should be. I feel like anything's possible here, and I love that. All you have to do is pick up the phone."
Drawing on one of his college experiences, Amendola hooked up with a couple of Bay Area African bands, which he describes now as being "pretty awful." It was a hardscrabble time. Amendola got a job delivering bread in the mornings, and took any gig he could get: "not like a lot of weddings or anything, but little one-shot club gigs. I did a lot of those." But he soon started to make friends in the local jazz scene, and began the first in a long string of associations with guitarists. "I was playing with a flautist for a while, but then I met John Schott, and then Charlie Hunter."
It was with Hunter that things finally began to come together. "Charlie and I met when I filled in for Jay Lane, who had double-booked himself. We connected instantly. It was right there. He had this regular gig on Fridays with Kenny Brooks at the Up & Down club in San Francisco, and he invited me to join them. Suddenly I had a regular Friday gig, and soon Charlie and I were doing other things too."
Those "other things" included several years in the Charlie Hunter Quartet, which recorded three albums in as many years for Blue Note. But it also led to the formation of the jazz- funk outfit T.J. Kirk, a unique project that continues, albeit with long periods of dormancy, to this day. "It was Charlie's idea to pull this off," Amendola says. The words tumble out of his mouth in a rapid-fire imitation of Hunter: "He was like, 'hey, you wanna do a band called T.J. Kirk we'll play Thelonious Monk and James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and it'll be great!' And I said, 'uh... okay!'" When the group gets together they last surfaced on a 2003 album for Rope-a-Dope (Talking Only Makes It Worse) they maintain their original lineup of Hunter, Schott, and Will Bernard on guitars and Amendola on drums. There are no horns, keyboards, or other instruments, but the unusual lineup doesn't limit the group. "The thing about that band is, and I say 'is' because it's not dead, is it really is a band. You take these four people and put 'em in a room, and something great is gonna happen. We know the music so well that at any moment someone can start something and bang, we're there. That's a rare thing. It takes a long time and a lot of sparks. We had to learn how to work together, but it's so fun and so free that it's become like a little collective."
Amendola thinks that the band's three sources are also a critical factor. "There's a spirit that they all have, Monk and Brown and Kirk, and a compositional uniqueness. With all of them, you have that groove thing, but also you have an intricacy of parts. You can take those tunes and work them out for three guitars doing three different things. It works subconsciously. And they're all kind of bizarre people. I think it's that combination of who they all are and our mutual interest in them that makes it work. Look at Charlie for example, and where he's coming from. Weird but accessible: that was Monk and that's Charlie."
In the mid-1990s, Amendola made two contacts that would be critical in forging his own identity as a composer and a leader. Guitarist Nels Cline and violinist Jenny Scheinman are key members of the Scott Amendola Band, and the three musicians frequently appear in each other's projects. All three are now label mates at Los Angeles-based Cryptogramophone, which is no coincidence.
Amendola met Cline through a mutual friend, saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, with whom Amendola had recorded a duo project for the 9 Winds label. It took only a few scattered gigs together for the two to forge a bond, and by 1999 they found themselves playing together in the band L. Stinkbug, alongside guitarist G.E. Stinson and bassist Stuart Liebig. "It was a blast," he says. "It was only occasional, but every time we got together and played it was just amazing. So one day I was on this really bad tour, and I was really bummed out, and I asked myself, if I could play with anybody in the world right now, who would I want to play with? And it was Nels. So I wrote him an e-mail and said, 'look man, we gotta play music together. Your stuff. Your tunes.' And he replied, saying, 'that's funny, I was just thinking the same thing!' Nels' trio had just fallen apart, and he was ready to do something else. But we needed a bassist. Well, soon after that I was talking to Devin Hoff. And I started telling him about playing with Nels, and Devin just took off. For 45 minutes he talked about Nels and his bands, The Geraldine Fibbers, all this stuff, nonstop. We'd found our bassist. And when we finally sat down to play, from the first note we were all like, wow, this is a band. It was greater than the sum of its parts... like H2O or something! It was beautiful."
Amendola speaks quietly for the most part, his words barely above a mumble. But he becomes animated when the topic turns to Cline, and much as Devin Hoff did years ago, he "takes off."
"Nels brought so much stuff out of me. Like I use a lot of electronics on stage now, and he's one of the reasons, because he saw it in my basement and he was like, 'you gotta bring that shit out. Just do it!' He's always improvising, always making noise. Working with him is like having a mentor. He's one of the greats. Anybody that knows Nels or has worked with him knows it. You can just see it, you can hear it, you can feel it. He never ever wavers onstage. Never."
He begins chuckling to himself. "Here's a funny story: we were playing a gig, with another guitarist who shall remain nameless, and this guy was conducting the gig. And for the whole night, anytime we started anything, he would just kill it. Just as it started getting good, this guy would cut it off! It was really weird, and everybody started to get frustrated. So it's getting towards the end of the gig, and Nels and I start getting into it; it's just going. And then this guys moves to cut it off, but Nels turns on him and goes, 'F--- YOU! KEEP PLAYING! F--- YOU!' And we kept playing! The man's a genius. He's everything that music should be, and he's a deep person. I've learned so much from that guy. When he gets into a situation with people he likes, when he likes where the music's going, he just pours all this positive energy into it, and always comes up with great ideas and pushes things to the max."
That same energy carries through into the studio. About the two records Cline has made with the Scott Amendola Band (Cry and Believe, both on Cryptogramophone), Amendola says, "I have the most efficient band on the planet. We made both those records in 15 hours or less, and we'd come out with more than 80 minutes of music. Nels is so focused. With Cry, I remember we were having some problems in the studio, and it was 1:00 in the morning, second day, and Jenny Scheinman had to go and overdub this solo and she was exhausted, right? She'd been going all day and wasn't sure she could keep it up. But she got in there and Nels just got this fire going in her, and he was like, 'PLAY!' and she just killed that solo."
Scheinman, who now lives in New York, was a stalwart on the Bay Area scene for years. Amendola worked in several of Scheinman's California bands, including The Django Project, which focused on the music of Django Reinhardt, and a quartet playing the violinist's original compositions.
"Jenny is also really focused," Amendola says. "She writes great music, and she's super-passionate about it. When she's there and playing there's no stopping her. She's more than just a fiddle player or even a jazz violinist she can do the Joe Venuti thing or the classical thing or the free music thing. She's even got the Catfish Collins thing, you know? She can just sit there and groove. She loves comping and bringing a rhythm. But then she can soar. Like on my tune 'Buffalo Bird Woman,' the way she phrases that melody, to me it's like Neil Young singing."