Scott Amendola may be a drummer, but he loves guitars, which he made perfectly clear on his first two releases. Scott Amendola Band (2000) featured guitarist Dave McNabb, while his first Cryptogramophone release, Cry (2003), found him teaming up with Nels Cline, with whom he also works in the guitarist's band, the Nels Cline Singers.
But for Believe, Amendola has taken things a step further, replacing saxophonist Eric Crystal with a second guitarist, Jeff Parker. Combine Cline and Parker with bassist John Shifflett and violinist Jenny Scheinman, who’s been with Amendola since his first release, and you have a string-heavy ensemble that’s capable of everything from outrageous noise improv to delicate balladry.
Amendola’s a drummer with a wide purview. While he’s found himself in more subdued contexts like singer Madeleine Peyroux’s touring band, he made his initial mark with guitarists—first as a member of the short-lived but adventurous Thelonious Monk-meets-James Brown-meets-Rahsaan Roland Kirk group TJ Kirk, which featured the triple-threat of guitarists Will Bernard and John Schott along with eight-string virtuoso Charlie Hunter, all of whom Amendola would continue to work with subsequently—and more recently with Cline’s Singers, whose two Crypto releases, Instrumentals and The Giant Pin, fearlessly stretch the potential of the power trio.
Amendola’s ability to find the groove inside any context, and an attention to detail in drum tuning that makes him both inherently flexible and distinctive, have also found him in demand outside the jazz arena with artists like Kelly Joe Phelps and Carla Bozulich. If anything, Believe reflects Amendola’s broad stylistic reach and his penchant for the lyrical simplicity of folk and alternative country music. “Buffalo Bird Woman” starts out with a burst of noise and an impression of freer things to come, but Amendola’s backbeat soon emerges, driving a countrified Neil Young-informed melody by Scheinman that’s supported by Parker’s gritty tremolo guitar and Cline’s lap steel. “If Only Once” find everyone digging deep into an achingly beautiful ballad where time alternates between gentle fluidity and a more established but equally graceful pulse. Scheinman’s rich melodicism is gently bolstered by Cline and Parker, who combine lush harmonies with vivid colours.
Elsewhere the band tackles the Afrobeat “Oladipo” and the idiosyncratic “Shady,” which starts with Cline and Parker trading ideas before Scheinman enters, no less free but with an eye to the down-home south. “Smarty Pants” is the closest thing to swing on the disc and yet, with tongue-in-cheek dissonant harmonies on the theme and an open-ended approach to accompaniment, the piece remains in context with the rest of the album.
It is, in fact, the band’s liberal interpretive approach that makes Believe hard to pigeonhole. Not jazz by any standard definition, it’s still the kind of improvisationally-reliant music that, while clearly rooted in other forms, couldn’t be played by anyone without a solid jazz background. Once again Cryptogramophone fosters the freedom to blend styles and blur boundaries, and once again Amendola is up to the challenge.