Laurie Anderson 'Slides' Into SF: Songs For Women And Men, With Tammy Hall & Scott Amendola
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Laurie Anderson 'Slides' Into SF: Songs For Women And Men, With Tammy Hall & Scott Amendola

November 2, 2018 | by Richard Scheinin

Tammy Hall, Laurie Anderson and Scott Amendola

Last March, drummer Scott Amendola finished a class at the dojo where he studies karate in Berkeley, CA. He looked at his cell phone – and then he looked at it again. He was puzzled by a text that had just arrived. From Laurie Anderson: “I stared at it a minute,” he recalls. “And there’s a friend of mine who I’ve trained with and we talk about music a lot, and I showed it to him and he said, `Dude, that’s badass.’”

Amendola, who had never performed with or even spoken to Anderson, had just been invited to play a night of duets with the radical art-pop legend during her upcoming residency at SFJAZZ (Nov. 28-Dec. 2). “Not everybody gets a text from Laurie Anderson,” Amendola says.

In April, pianist Tammy Hall also received a message. Leaving a restaurant in San Francisco, she says, “I was going through my emails and I see the name `Laurie Anderson.’ And I looked over at my partner Barbara and I said, `I only know of one Laurie Anderson, and surely this couldn’t be the same one.’” And yet, surely, it was. Hall recites what Anderson said in her note: “`I’ve heard a couple of your songs and I love the way you play and would you consider performing with me?’ Me? You could hear the scream all the way over to Alameda,” on the other side of the Bay Bridge.

Not that Hall and Amendola didn’t deserve to hear from Anderson. Each is an accomplished artist. In a career that spans jazz, gospel, blues, classical and pop, Hall has worked with vocalist Ernestine Anderson, saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, violinist Regina Carter and Mary Wilson of the Supremes – and she once conducted the State Symphony Orchestra of Turkmenistan. Amendola’s vitae stretches from the fringe (John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline) to straight ahead jazz (Johnny Griffin, Pat Martino), high-end fusion (Pat Metheny) and pop (Joan Osborne, Bruce Cockburn). That said, Hall and Amendola are primarily associated with the Bay Area scene and tend to get pegged as local musicians: the pianist lives in San Francisco, the drummer in Berkeley. By contrast, Anderson – based in New York since 1966 – is a doyen of the worldwide avant-garde, someone who seems to have been present at the creation. Her collaborators have included William S. Burroughs, Philip Glass and Lou Reed, to whom she was married from 2008 until his death in 2013. She is a musician, yes, but also a storyteller and performance artist, famous for strapping on ice skates frozen into a block of ice and playing her violin until the ice had melted. She is also a sculptor, painter, poet, filmmaker and computer geek. She was NASA’s first artist-in-residence and recently designed an interactive, virtual reality exhibit for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Scott Amendola performing in Nels Cline's Singers

Over the years, Anderson has often gravitated toward duets. She enjoys the face-to-face intimacy of the format, its conversation-like flow. But given that SFJAZZ offered her a blank slate for her stint as resident artistic director, why would Anderson – who could pretty much get any musician, anywhere, to play with her – choose a couple of Bay Area strangers as duo partners? Why would she ask Tammy Hall to join her for a night of “Songs for Women” (Nov. 29) and Scott Amendola for a night of “Songs for Men” (Dec. 1)?

Speaking by phone from a coffee shop near her loft in Lower Manhattan, Anderson almost seems to be engaged in an impromptu bit of theater as she gives her answer. The place is crowded, she has a bad cold, and she buys a cup of tea. “Hang on,” she says, while searching for an empty chair. “Wow, there’s no place to sit here. Wait, I’ll sit on the floor over there in the corner,” she says, and Laurie Anderson goes “umph” as she crouches down with her cup of tea in the noisy room. Finally, she settles into the interview, explaining that she is “trying to crawl out of my stylistic hole” by looking for wild-card challenges in San Francisco: “Different cities have their own styles and traditions, you know? So I thought I’d slide into that, get away from the New York vibe. There’s always a network of people who know one another, so I tapped into that and that’s how I found Scott. People I know said, `Oh, he’s really cool.’ And several others said the same about Tammy: `Check her out.’ So I did.” She watched Hall on YouTube. “Tammy’s such a great musician. I’ve never played with her, and we’re so far apart musically,” says Anderson, who once filled her violin with water for a performance. “But I was listening to her music and something in it made me think, `This could be interesting.’ Some jazz players just do the standards and never leave that place. But I think she really plays with freedom, so we’ll see what happens. It’s a good way to learn new things: Put yourself in a situation where you don’t know what to do.”

Hall likes the sound of that challenge: “I live for this,” she says. “I believe you get new grooves in the brain when you get thrown into a totally new situation. So, yes, I love it. It’s a great stretching out for me. You don’t get a chance to second-guess yourself. You’re either all in, or you say, `No, I can’t’ – and I’m not that person. I’m not going to say, `No, I can’t do that.”

Amendola concurs: “You can go through life and you can do simple, easy, predictable things,” he says. “But I’m an improviser. The idea of working with people where there’s a lot of unknowns – it’s what I do.” He thinks back 20 years to the first time he played with guitarist Bill Frisell: “He already was kind of a friend and we’d shared a manager. But then I get there for the gig and Bill counts off the first tune and he plays this note.” Amendola pauses. “I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but that first note was like getting hit over the head with a sledgehammer. And I realized that he wants me to play with him. I’m not here as a fan. If I’m not going to deliver, just leave. And now I’m working with Laurie Anderson. She’s brilliant. She’s a genius. I’m just going to get thrown onstage. Maybe we’ll talk a little bit first, but then we’re just going to improvise. It gets all the right things flowing.”

Amendola – who suspects he got the gig with Anderson through the recommendation of his friend John Zorn – discovered her music about 25 years ago. That’s when he came across the song “Excellent Birds,” which she had composed and recorded with Peter Gabriel in the mid-‘80s: “It totally twisted my ear,” he recalls. “And when T.J. Kirk” – one of his old bands with guitarist Charlie Hunter – “got signed to Warner Brothers, we were raiding the vaults and I went in there and pulled a lot of Laurie’s stuff and started checking her out. She’s someone who really has her own voice and has created her own language and has such a specific stamp in music. There’s nobody like Laurie. If you watch videos of her on `Letterman’ in the ‘80s, where she’s got her voice going through this changer and she’s playing the violin – she’s a total weirdo, and I love weirdos. The people I connect with are people who hear music in a different way.”

He describes Anderson’s music as an amalgam of rock, classical composition and textural improvisation, which he likens to “sculpting pure sound.” Comparing her to Ornette Coleman, the late composer and saxophonist, he says, “She’s just breaking down barriers. And for a woman to do that, it’s super-brave and I think that’s something that’s really important to acknowledge. Being a musician in the music business, it’s hard for anyone. But being a woman in the music business is far more difficult, and for her to be the super-creative visionary woman that she is – I can only imagine what she’s had to deal with. Laurie, she’s not afraid.”

Hall caught on to Anderson in the early 1980s when her apocalyptic “O Superman” single became a hit, altering the trajectory of Anderson’s career and eventually landing her on MTV. In the late ‘80s, Hall saw Anderson perform in Paris, and, in the early ‘90s, in the East Bay. Each time, she says, Anderson was “playing with sound and syllable and very viscerally showing me what we can do as musicians with sound. She put a tape head on the bridge of the violin and would make this fabulous sound. She just opened new dimensions of what music is to my young ears. To this day, she answers the question: `Yes, all sound is music.’”

She likens Anderson to Miles Davis: “It’s Laurie’s minimalism, the pared back thing,” says Hall, who objects to the breakneck tempos and “plethoras of scales” that she hears in so many jazz performances. When she began learning to play jazz, it all seemed rather macho to her: “Except for some Miles stuff, I wasn’t hearing a lot of space in music, letting tones decay and not filling up every nano-measurement of a measure as if you have something to prove.” Davis offered a template to Hall, as did vocalist Shirley Horn, who understood, she says, that “you can let the listener provide some of the music. And I feel that with Laurie, as well; she lets the listener fill in. She’s essential in that regard, about leaving space and also about just standing in who you are and that’s what you offer.”

Yet when asked what she thinks led Anderson to choose her, Hall breaks into laughter. She is still a bit puzzled, because they are very different as people and artists. Hall grew up playing spirituals in black churches in Texas; Anderson, from the Chicago suburbs, composed a symphony played on automobile horns while in college and went on to get a fine arts degree in sculpture. So where is the connection? The “pared back thing” may be part of it: Anderson “didn’t hear a lot technical piano playing when she listened to my music, because I don’t spout off a lot of riffs and scales. She probably heard some percussionistic playing, which I do a lot of. And I love playing with lush and tight harmonies, because they’re texture for me and they also provoke color. I’m always aspiring for the blue – that deep royal, beautiful blue that you can just bathe in and be enfolded, surrounded, by. Maybe she heard that.”

In late April, Hall and Amendola had dinner with Anderson in San Francisco, where she made an appearance to promote her latest book. Aside from being told that she was preparing some stories and songs, neither got much information about the specifics of the upcoming programs. “She said, `I want it to be very open and a lot of improvising,’” Amendola says. “I talked to her a bit about what I’d bring – obviously my drum set, and I have some electronics, because I do live looping. And I also now have this wide array of gongs, really interesting hand-made gongs and percussion. It’s pretty exciting, where it all could go, the textures we might come up with. My brain has been going; I have all these ideas. I’m sure there’ll be some amazing moments and some not-so-amazing moments. That’s life: unpredictability.”

As for Hall, she expects a night of “spontaneous creation and getting back to the freedom of jazz. Laurie is a violinist supreme and I love the piano and we will meet on that ground,” she says. “And I know that whatever she gives that I can respond to is going to make me stand so tall. And I hope I can make her feel the same way when she plays and responds to me.”

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.