“The breadth of what we do is so wide we don't have to think about it,” says longtime Bay Area drummer Scott Amendola, when talking about fellow local organist Wil Blades--the other half of the dynamic music duo known as Amendola vs. Blades. “The cool thing is we can play swingin’ old school jazz, funk and rock, African music, to playing free.” Such dynamic range would prove challenging for any band, let alone one consisting merely of eight limbs, two analog keyboards and a drum kit. But it’s a challenge the two friends have eagerly met gig after gig since their auspicious first show together, a performance of Duke Ellington’s “Far East Suite” as an organ and drums arrangement, ten years ago. “It’s all about keeping it fresh,” adds Amendola. “And keeping the audience engaged.” And keeping audiences sonically freshened and engaged throughout their ever-evolving decade-long stint hasn’t been a problem for this uncanny duo, who’ve imprinted plenty of nondescript juke joints: the High Sierra Music Festival, SF Jazz, and the iconic Fillmore, alike with their slithery sound, enough to make stalwart critics like the SF Chronicle’s Joel Selvin squawk: "As for Wil Blades and Scott Amendola, these two Young Turks of the San Francisco jazz scene are bringing the organ-drum duo into the 21st century."
And during this century, if you wanted to experience Amendola vs. Blades, you’d have to be one of the many thousands who’ve steadily showed up at one of their live duo adventures. Sure, you may have seen and/or heard these two in-demand session players as bandleaders in their own right, or as distinguished sidemen with the likes of Nels Cline, Charlie Hunter, John Zorn, Mike Patton, John Scofield, Idris Muhammad, Bernard Purdie, or Dr. Lonnie Smith. But if you wanted an album of just the two of them facing off as they do, literally on stage--you’d have to wait. Until now. Finally, Scott Amendola and Wil Blades bring us their long-anticipated debut album—Greatest Hits—on Sazi Records.
Recorded over two nights in front of an intimate audience in a downtown Oakland club in June of last year, Greatest Hits is comprised of seven originals, tunes that had initially been composed and recorded by Scott and Wil for other projects. Depending who you ask, the album title could perhaps be construed as a mini-sampler of what’s to come, or perhaps a facetious statement of what was. The germ for the album took shape nearly two years ago. Adds Scott, “We always talked about it, but our schedules never lined up due to both of us being heavily on the road. As other projects ended, we actually had time to take it seriously.” Blades adds, “The thing about live recording was double-fold. For us playing as a duo is very loose and fun, so the best way to capture that was live--the vibe of a studio can make you feel restrained under pressure. A loose gig is a better representation of how we play our stuff, which is improvising.”
On Greatest Hits, such improvisation creatively steers the duo through a scenic tour of music genres, as each artist pushes and pull the other toward unanticipated discovery, all the while powered by the heavy grooves laid down by Blades’ mastery of the Hammond organ, and Hohner Clavinet, and anchored by Amendola’s rhythmic drum array. “Most organ players are piano players first, organ players second. But Wil’s the opposite. His relationship to the organ is deeper than anyone I’ve ever heard”, say Amendola. In addition to Hammond organ, (and requisite Leslie speaker), Blades doubles his keyboard arsenal with the distinct sound of a Clavinet, one he spent a summer tediously restoring. “It literally has my blood, sweat and tears in it,” laughs Wil. “It opens up more sonic possibilities, and just adds another color texture to the mix.”
The seven tunes on Greatest Hits impresses with its own set of colors and textures. From the fast boogaloo of “Lima Bean,” to the New Orleans 2nd line vibe of “32nd St.”, and “Slow Zig,” (a tribute to Meters legend Zigaboo Modeliste); the complex 6/8 rhythms of the Ethiopian-inspired “Addis”, to the afrobeat-centric homage via “Oladipo”, to Fela’s right (and left) hand man, wunderkind drummer Tony Allen; or from the soulful songs dedicated to their respective daughters in “Deep Eyes”, and “Mae Mae.” It’s a range Amendola vs. Blades is uniquely suited to express. “I like playing tunes,” the drummer says. “I like the idea of there being a structure to launch from, and being a duo means there are a lot of possibilities harmonically and rhythmically. Neither one of us knows what we are gonna do, and that is exciting both for us, and the audience. ”