30 April 2008

Review: Scott Amendola Band

Jazz Standard, 25 April 2008

It was nearly 5 years ago to the night (plus or minus a month) that I got my first taste of both Jenny Scheinman and Nels Cline -- a night at (the old) Tonic I wrote about here. That was a short bit before Cline got picked up on waivers to turn Wilco into a live powerhouse. It was also the precise moment when I fell deeply and madly in love with Jennifer Scheinman. That night they were playing as part of Scott Amendola's band and pretty much blew me out of the water, so it was with little hesitation that I made it to the Jazz Standard last Friday when I saw that he was back with his "band" in tow. You can tell a lot about the quality of a musician you don't know by who they can convince to back them up and help them make their music. While I already know that Scott is a kick ass drummer and composer, it doesn't hurt to have the Scheinman/Cline combo working for you. Oh yeah, Friday night he had a special guest: Charlie Hunter. Sweet!

I made it just before the lights were set to go down and was directed to a set next to Terri who has the distinct privilege of informing you whether you were right or wrong about what show you picked to see just by merely being there. So I felt good about that. The lights went down and Scott announced he wouldn't be doing too much talking... and then they just got right into it. The first tune wasted no time getting deep funky with Charlie and Scott mixing it up and setting the tone for the rest of the night. The band kind of naturally segregated into two non-competitive teams: the Amendola/Hunter duo worked the groovy/funky, setting the tempo, holding down the low end and making everyone's toes tap under their table, hips swivel in their seats and heads bob through the air; the Cline/Scheinman pairing went straight for the soul, twisting and spiraling into wonderful emotional interactions. Each tune would feature this sort of rift -- a kinda right brain/left brain duality -- and then someone meet up in the middle for a serious stretch of all-out 4-on-the-floor playing that was sure to garner hoots from the crowd and spontaneous "that was awesome" applause taboot.

The second tune was called, I believe, "Street Beat" and featured an insanely good section in the middle. Of course it was lead by Jenny who kind of laid low for a little bit and let the game come to her. But midway through she took the reins and eased, just eased her way into the tune. Just a toe into a cold swimming pool, then up to the ankle, knee, thigh and then a big fat jump til the water was overhead. Slowly she worked her bow back and forth, feeling out the groove behind her and picking out just the right set of notes: two, three, maybe four. Then she just worked them over and over and over. It wasn't so much the melody she was playing, but the way she was forging her way through the tune with them, like a ship cutting through the water, opening up a wake behind her violin playing. The other three gladly filled in behind her wake like dolphins hopping in and out of the water. The riff picked up speed and momentum and exploded in several minutes of all four of them just flat out jamming. It was a highlight stretch of music, no doubt.

Nels and Jenny seem to have that certain chemistry that two musicians find in each other. When she was playing, he was dotting her "i"'s and crossing her "t"'s and when he took one of his many killer axe-shredders, she returned the favor. Amendola was the perfect bandleader, writing the tunes, recruiting the musicians, laying down the grooves, setting the tempo and then just sitting back and letting the talent take over. His songs range nicely over the funky to the cerebral to the lullaby just flat out rocking. Yes, the show was at a nice little jazz club, but in another setting the crowd might have been dancing their tushies off. There was a nice pairing of "Lullaby for Sasha" (nice!) into a tune called "Buffalo Bird Woman" that allowed everyone to flex their musical muscles and show off their range. The latter could have been an instrumental version of a Grateful Dead tune -- a jazzed-up Ramble On Rose -- and then flipped into an open ended jam section that had that same, slow-breathing rock feel of Cortez the Killer. Nels moved to a lap steel for this one which was just the perfect sound and meshed perfectly with Jenny.

Charlie was obviously a little less familiar with the material than the others, but did a nice job contributing. He was at his best when he was concentrating on the bass lines and translating Amendola's rhythms into bopping melodies. Occasionally he took a characteristically "Charlie Hunter" guitar solo, but for the most part was a complementary piece. I think I like him better in that role. I will say that the dual guitar sound was really nice. Somehow the Hunter & Cline tones fit together perfectly -- different but ideally suited to each other, like orange and blue. I would also be remiss if I didn't point out the crazy looks Charlie was giving Jenny. He seemed almost a little too impressed by her playing, but honestly, could I blame him? She does have a bewitching energy on stage that subsumes her music and presence. Somehow it's a little off, but by just the right amount and in just the right direction. Frankly, I can't get enough.

With all that greatness, it's no wonder Amendola had a big fat grin on his face from the moment he stepped on the stage to the last note. He guided the band expertly, the songs were, to a one, magnificent and he had a top notch ensemble behind him. You can throw a bunch of talented musicians together, but there's no guarantee that they'll click the way Scott had these 4 going Friday. If they happen to be playing again, I highly recommend it.

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