Cryptogramophone CG 116

Designed as a major socio-political statement, CRY, the new album by Bay area percussionist Scott Amendola involves much more than the jam band/jazz-funk tunes with which he made his reputation with T.J. Kirk and in guitarist Charlie Hunter’s Band.

Pointedly “inspired” by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, according to the back cover, the drummer has included the spiritual “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” among the pieces performed. Additionally, some of the other tunes, all written and arranged by Amendola, could have similar metaphoric meanings. “Rosa”, a relaxed, lightweight ballad may be inspired by Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks; “A Cry for John Brown” is no doubt directed towards the famous abolitionist; while “Bantu” and “Streetbeat” suggest that the disc may be trying to connect to the so-called urban (ahem) underclass. Finally, should we hear “My Son, the Wanderer” with its allusion to Allan Sherman’s “My Son The Folksinger” LP, as a confirmation that the percussionist has a message he wants to get across. Is CRY actually a jazz-folk-rock CD?

Well, yes and no. Evidently Amendola, whose employers have included sophisticated social commentators such as improv pianist Paul Plimley, composer John Zorn and the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, wanted to produce more than a CD of instrumental virtuosity. Be assured though that everyone’s chops are up to the max. However, if you like this genre of music, you can still quarrel with what results on a couple of the tunes.

Since it includes vocals by Carla Bozulich of the Geraldine Fibbers, “Masters of War”, with its anti-profiteering message, is unequivocally designed as a major statement. It’s undoubtedly topical what with the Republican administration’s new found military imperialism — cultural imperialism seems not to be enough for Bush & Co. — though perhaps “With God on Our Side” would have been more appropriate.

Still it’s a good thing that the lyrics are included in the CD booklet. For Bozulich’s delivery seems to totter between a mumbled whisper and histrionics, neither of which leads to lyric comprehension. At the same time the accompaniment, which moves from a near-monotonous military tattoo from the drummer to screaming sax lines from Eric Crystal and sonic boom guitar runs from Nels Cline adds to the aural confusion.

Other tunes are more musically impressive. For instance on “A Cry for John Brown” the violin stylings of Jenny Scheinman, who has worked with Zorn plus pianists Cecil Taylor and Myra Melford, move from the restrained country and western fiddle licks on the ballads to unison statements with Crystal, and to solos that sound like a more tasteful Jean-Luc Ponty. The saxman, who has been musical director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and played with everyone from Bob Weir and Mickey Hart of the Dead and Ziggy Modeliste of The Meters, to improvisers like pianist Vijay Iyer and clarinetist Ben Goldberg, confines himself to simple reed lines here as well. That’s good, because while he can approximate a bagpipe tone, as he does on “His Eye is on the Sparrow”, most of Crystal’s remaining work sounds like that of too many uninvolved studio woodwind players.

Scheinman’s counter motif played against the initial theme causes Amendola to vary his beat from a modified shuffle to a hard ProgRock attack. At the same time, the arena-style power chording from guitarist Nels Cline, who has worked with everyone from post-rocker guitarist Thurston Moore to inventive woodwind improviser Vinny Golia, is kept in check through the others’ fine work. It’s like listening to a Pat Metheny with ideas as well as technique.

Amendola has covered tunes by Jimi Hendrix and Nick Drake in the past and “Whisper, Scream (or the Ballad of two Finnish Women) [!]” seems to confirm his fascination with ProgRock. That outburst occurs midway through the tune, that introduces warbling trills from Crystal, a hearty Yes-style build up of chiming guitar and bass runs plus pounding drum beats. True to the percussionist’s more experimental side though, the piece begins with Cline squeezing back-of-the-bridge sounds from his instrument, until straight acoustic-style hard rock strumming introduces the theme.

Other tunes, such as “My Son, the Wanderer” are more notable for the light-fingered rims and side percussion sounds and conga drum suggestions the percussionist brings to them as well as for walking basses lines from Todd Sickafoose, whose experience lies more with fiddler Darol Anger and bluegrass singer Laurie Lewis than jazz. Too often, though, throughout the set, the saxophonist seems content to puff out a sweet lightweight soprano sound and the guitarist exhibits the worst sort of showy jazz-rock fusion twists and turns.

All in all, it seems that despite its good intentions and social conscience CRY misses greatness by a small margin. If a couple of the more laid back tunes had been eliminated and if the saxophonist and guitarist in particular had toughened their attack, this could have been a must-hear rather than an interesting experiment. Still, anyone listening to it will certainly be drawn to whatever Amendola comes up with in the future.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. His Eye is on the Sparrow 2. Bantu 3. A Cry for John Brown 4. Whisper, Scream (or the Ballad of two Finnish Women) 5. My Son, the Wanderer 6. Streetbeat 7. Masters of War* 8. Rosa

Personnel: Eric Crystal (soprano and alto saxophones); Jenny Scheinman (violin); Nels Cline (guitar) Todd Sickafoose (bass); Scott Amendola (drums, percussion); Carla Bozulich (vocals)*