Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola and pals to play Saturday at California Jazz Conservatory

After two years lying low, Amendola hit the road for a brief tour. Now he’s back in the Bay Area fray, starting with a performance of his trio SticklerPhonics.

Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola, trombonist Danny Lubin-Laden and tenor saxophonist Raffi Garabedian make up the stripped-down trio SticklerPhonics. Courtesy of the artists

How do musicians return from pandemic isolation? In the case of Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola, gradually, then suddenly.

Last month, after two years lying low, he hit the road for a brief tour with electric bass master Michael Manring and renegade guitarist David Torn. This month he’s plunging back into the Bay Area fray with a series of gigs reuniting him with comrades from some of the defining bands of earlier decades. But first Amendola is introducing Berkeley to an unusual jazz combo with deep local roots.  

The SticklerPhonics, Rendon Hall, California Jazz Conservatory, 2040 Addison St., 8 p.m. April 16

On Saturday, the stripped-down trio SticklerPhonics featuring tenor saxophonist Raffi Garabedian and trombonist Danny Lubin-Laden performs at the California Jazz Conservatory. The horn players have worked closely together since they were in the Berkeley High jazz program, circa 2003. In the months before the pandemic they played several times with a bassist in an Amendola-led quartet, but last spring the drummer contacted them to start playing in an unusual trio configuration.

Working mostly out of sight, SticklerPhonics has developed an approach that accounts for the standard elements that are missing. “It’s really different in terms of everyone’s role, because we don’t have a bassist or a chordal instrument,” Amendola said. “I was a little nervous. They’re wind players, and they’ve got to be playing a lot. I told them ‘I’m here, too. You guys can take a break and rest your chops.’ I’ll be carrying certain aspects of what we’re doing. It’s a really different challenge.”

Amendola has a lot of experience with deploying orchestral approaches to the trap set in jazz settings. His long-running duo with Hammond B-3 organist Wil Blades got its start when they developed an impressively detailed version of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s late masterpiece Far East Suite. In SticklerPhonics the trio is focusing on Amendola’s book of compositions, though they’re also exploring open-ended jams and freely improvised passages. Lubin-Ladin and Garabedian, who recently premiered an exquisite chamber jazz song cycle at the Temescal Art Center exploring his family’s history fleeing the Armenian genocide, are also contributing some originals. 

There aren’t many models to follow, though drummer Joey Baron’s trio Barondown with tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trombonist Steve Swell is a major source of inspiration. “Scott hipped me to that group,” said Garabedian. “It’s fun to be in this almost uncomfortable situation, but you get convinced you don’t need the other elements, and you convince the audience you don’t need them either. You need melody, rhythm and harmony, and the challenge is how can you successfully get all that with what you’re working with.”

The horn players have a whole lot of history to build on. After Berkeley High they went their separate ways when Garabedian moved to New York to study jazz at the New School and Lubin-Laden enrolled at UCLA. When he relocated to New York to study at the New School Lubin-Laden and Garabedian ended up sharing an apartment. 

Back in the Bay Area a few years later they co-led Brass Magic, a stylistically omnivorous, horn-laden band that melded funk and rock, R&B and an array of international brass band idioms. Their deep connection on and off the bandstand informs the music of SticklerPhonics, which continues to calibrate different approaches for various spaces.

“We can be a little more groove and beat oriented, or tailor it more for a listening space like the CJC,” Amendola said. “There are so many possibilities. What’s fun is that it’s so easy to hang out and play. They’re younger and it’s good to get that perspective. So many people I’ve got history with have left the Bay Area. Both Raffi and Danny seem pretty settled here. It’s nice to have a local band where we can rehearse and work on things.”

Some of Amendola’s closest musical collaborators are back in town this month and will be joining him at the Ivy Room April 20-21 with the reunion of Damn Skippy. With the guitar tandem of Berkeley’s John Schott and Brooklyn-based Berkeley High grad Will Bernard, the band is three-fourths of the Grammy-nominated combo T.J. Kirk, a near legendary unit that also featured guitarist Charlie Hunter. Damn Skippy breaks open T.J. Kirk’s guitar-centric hegemony by adding violinist Jenny Scheinman and bassist Todd Sickafoose into the mix. 

They were both creative catalysts on the Bay Area scene for two decades before moving north. Scheinman, who also performs Sunday April 24 in the chamber jazz quartet House of Faern at Dresher Studios in West Oakland, landed back near her hometown in Humboldt County where she’s continued to thrive as an improviser and acclaimed singer/songwriter. Now living in Eugene, where he’s on faculty at the University of Oregon, Sickafoose earned a Tony Award for orchestrating Anaïs Mitchell’s Broadway hit Hadestown (a musical that got an early boost as part of the Summer Residency Lab in the Ground Floor: Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work).

While Sickafoose is in town, he and Amendola are also reuniting with Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg in Plays Monk, a trio focusing on the endlessly engaging compositions of Thelonious Monk. Interest in the long dormant group was piqued last fall when the trio’s eponymous album with bassist Devon Hoff became available for streaming. Plays Monk performs April 28 at Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park Community Center and April 29 at the Sound Room in Oakland. It all adds up to a very busy and gratifying month of music. 

“For Damn Skippy, Will and John and I came together and had the idea to do it, and the last couple of times we played with Jenny and Todd it felt really good,” Amendola said. “They’re people I’ve known forever and love and it’s really easy to play together, though it’s hard to schedule.”

Speaking of Scott Amendola and Todd Sickafoose, they’re also performing in a new quartet co-led by guitarist John Schott and vocalist Cecilia Engelhart at the Back Room on April 24. Informed by Engelhart’s love of the Latin American songbook, the group plays original compositions combining jazz forms and free improvisation. 

And for an expansive take on traditional forms, it’s hard to beat fingerstyle guitarist Walter Strauss, who celebrates the release of his new album For Melody, Wherever She May Find Me at Freight & Salvage on April 20. Ranging from the Saharan climes of Mali to the oft-drenched Shetland Isles, he’s a song sleuth who has honed a syncopated guitar sound deeply inspired by the West African kora. At the Freight he’ll be joined by special guests and long-time collaborators such as multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven, guitarists Stevie Coyle and Bo Carper, and Berkeley’s Mamadou Sidibe, a Malian master who builds his own kamal ngonis with gourds he grows in his Berkeley garden (but that’s a story for another day). 

A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture reporter who has contributed to Berkeleyside since 2011.