Crying through the drums

Scott Amendola

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 8, 2003) – Scott Amendola isn’t sure how to feel when people tell him they like his record because it doesn’t sound like a record a drummer would make.

“Should I be flattered by that?” asked Amendola, who performs with his jazz-groove quintet at Club Helsinki next Wednesday, May 14, at 8.

What probably surprises people about the music on “Cry” (CryptoGramophone), Amendola’s latest CD, is its melodic quality and its willingness to cede the focus to other instrumentalists, including violinist Jenny Scheinman, guitarist Nels Cline and saxophonist Eric Crystal.

Although he is the bandleader and a drummer, Amendola doesn’t write for himself. He writes with the ensemble in mind, and he draws from a wide palette for his compositions.

“Composing is really an individual thing based on the personality of the composer rather than the instrument he plays,” said Amendola, a New Jersey native, Berklee College alumnus, and member of the Grammy Award-nominated jazz group, T.J. Kirk, in a recent phone interview.

“I tend to hear very melodically,” said Amendola, who for several years in the late-‘90s held down the drum seat in the Charlie Hunter Quartet, led by the innovative, Bay Area guitarist. “I start from melodies, and sometimes I’ll write a whole song, or sometimes I’ll have just a bass line or a fragment of a melody.

“Lately what I’ve been writing is more on the ballad side or more on the freer side. But then I’ll write something completely different. There’s no formula. It just comes to me. I can’t force it.”

As heard on “Cry,” Amendola’s compositions are colorful pictures that draw on a variety of inspirations, including African music, jazz, blues, spirituals, rock and world music, particularly Middle Eastern.

When Amendola composes, he has in mind the particular sound and sensibility of the players in his band.

“Some ideas I come up with are not right for this group,” he said. “But more times than not, the ideas work with this group. I’m hearing these particular instruments right now. The violin is just so incredibly expressive on all levels, and Jenny as a player is so expressive and listens to so many different types of music. She can be the most subtlest, quietest little bird, and then can be the tractor-trailer riding down the highway. My music calls for that.”

Scheinman is a virtuoso violinist who studied at Oberlin Conservatory and has worked with Aretha Franklin, Bill Frisell, Myra Melford, John Zorn, Cecil Taylor and Charming Hostess. Her own recordings include “Live at Yoshi’s,” “Eat” and “The Rabbi’s Lover.”

“I’ve known Jenny a long time and we’ve played together a lot,” said Amendola. “There’s so much about her playing and her personality that I absolutely love. And violin is my most favorite instrument in the world.

“Everyone in my band – they’re all incredibly deep musicians where there are no borders. And that’s really important for me when I bring in my music. It’s all over the map. And what really makes it a whole is the fact that all of us see that and we all can take this music and make it our thing. It’s not my thing; it’s our thing. It really is a special thing.”

Amendola said the musicians in his group play a role in shaping his compositions. “The band comes up with certain ideas around what I’m writing harmonically,” he said. “They’re all harmonic geniuses. You can write two notes on a piece of paper and put it in front of them and they’ll come up with incredible music.”

As a composer, Amendola finds motivation and inspiration from various sources, including politics and culture.

With titles like “Bantu,” “A Cry for John Brown,” and “Rosa,” much of the material on “Cry” was clearly intended to address civil rights and African-American history.

“I wrote ‘Rosa’ on the day that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan,” said Amendola. “I was thinking about Rosa Parks and how one person could make a difference, and how we all have a voice. I just look at this woman who grew up in the South as a woman of color, for whom at the time it was incredibly difficult to make a statement, yet she did.”

Amendola was also moved to explore the various aspects of the title. “The word ‘cry’ means so many different things -- joyful, sad, anger, rage, uniting. That’s why I called it that. That’s what the music was about -- a reaching out, a speaking out and making a really loud statement, but also making a very personal statement.”

When people ask Amendola what kind of music he plays, he is hard-pressed to come up with an adequate answer.

“I get asked that question a lot, when I’m traveling and people see me carrying my cymbal bag, and I meet people and they ask what I play,” he said. “It stumps me. It’s kind of jazz-based, but it’s not traditional jazz. It’s improvisationally-based, but it’s based on melodies and grooves and ballads. I describe the instrumentation. It’s hard to get across references like Bill Frisell and John Zorn, and it’s difficult to summarize because there are African influences, Americana influences, songs, jazz and fusion influences.

“The best compliment anyone ever gave me was when Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin and Wood heard us play and afterwards he came up and said to me, ‘You’ve created your own voice.’

“I feel like I’ve done that with these musicians, and they’re a huge part of that. I hate the idea of labels. To me music is one thing, whether I’m playing with Kelly Joe Phelps or Nels Cline or Stinkbug. It’s all the same thing. I’m sitting behind the drums playing music, reacting to sounds, hitting the drums and cymbals. It really is the same thing and I approach everything that way. I just feel like it’s wide open and I think it’s hard for most people to understand that.

“People who go out and buy a Norah Jones record might not understand mine right away, but I think if they’re exposed to it and listen to it for a while, they will.”

[This feature originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 9, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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