Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola explore connections
Scott Amendola’s not only one of the finest jazz drummers on the West Coast, he’s also a gifted composer—as Pucker, his new duo CD with guitarist Charlie Hunter, indicates. All but one song on this energetic yet accessible offering is an Amendola original. The exception, “Scott’s Tune”, is clearly a dedication—but who’s this Tony Gottuso guy who wrote it?
Well, according to his online bio, Gottuso was a first-call session musician from the late 1930s well into the 1950s, appearing on recordings by everyone from Canadian country singer Wilf Carter to swing star Artie Shaw.
He was also Amendola’s grandfather and first mentor.
“We were very close,” the Bay Area–based drummer explains by cellphone as he and Hunter make their way to a San Diego gig. “When I first started playing, he and my grandmother bought me my first drum set, and he helped find my first drum teacher. Then we started playing together when I was 13, 14. It was pretty amazing to be able to learn jazz from him.”
Gottuso passed on more than just musical ability. Although Amendola writes most of his tunes on the piano, he’s inherited the 1966 Fender Stratocaster that Gottuso favoured toward the end of his life. And the two Italian Americans shared an interest in adventurous sounds: Amendola’s credits include work with such avant-gardists as guitarist Nels Cline, saxophonist Larry Ochs, and local pianist Paul Plimley, while Gottuso never stopped experimenting with the guitar.
“One day I was at his house and he had just got an octave pedal,” the drummer recalls. “So he was like, ‘Hey, let me show you this!’ We went down to the basement, and he plugged it in and started playing, and my jaw kind of hit the floor. I was blown away by what he was doing. By that point I had enough of an educated ear to understand what was going on, and how he was a real guitar player, compared to a lot of the other stuff I was listening to at the time.”
Although Amendola contends that his own guitar-playing is “absolutely horrible”, he’s obviously got an affinity for the instrument. In addition to drumming for the Nels Cline Singers, he’s a member of Bill Frisell’s Big Sur Quartet and often performs with Tortoise plectrist Jeff Parker. But the duo with Hunter—a friend since they were teenagers—is an unusually intimate expression of that connection, even if some listeners could easily mistake their duo for a trio.
Hunter, who generally performs on custom-made seven- or eight-string instruments, is notorious for being able to sound like a bassist and a guitarist—or two guitarists—playing at once. His skill verges on the freakish, but Amendola thinks otherwise. “What he does, to me, just seems really organic and natural,” he says. “Even when I first heard him, it didn’t seem like anything other than that to me. It didn’t seem like ‘Oh, this is a really cool, tricky thing that I’m doing that’s just going to wow people, because I can spin a plate on my foot, put a ball on my nose, and then recite Keats.’ It was just about his musical expression, and that’s totally what spoke to me in the beginning.”
Amendola soon had that first impression confirmed by an unimpeachable source: none other than Tony Gottuso himself. “My grandfather was completely blown away when they met,” Amendola recalls. “He just started going off on how amazing Charlie was, and then he said ‘I’m going to go home and practise.’ That’s a pretty big compliment when you’re just starting out!”