Wil Blades has long embraced the notion that organ duos can make viable cafe music, even if they require an unwieldy rig, and even if the old, rich, churchy Hammond B3 sound is a bit of an acquired taste. Blades, who is 33 and Calvin Klein-ad-worthy good-looking, has no problem being a torchbearer. Moreover, he's well accustomed to schlepping his own Hammond around on a dolly, complete with foot pedals and a Leslie speaker (an amplifier with a rotating speaker that creates tremolo and vibrato effects). Ask him to enumerate parts of the organ and he'll do it with all the ardor of a rock musician gushing about his Fender Telecaster. Ask him about the Hammond's atavistic connection to its distant cousin, the pipe organ, and he could have your ear for the evening.
Blades started playing lunchtime sets at Awaken Cafe a few years ago, accompanied by guitarist Jack Riordan. Now, he's regaling the after-dinner crowd at the cafe's new location, alongside drummer Scott Amendola. The two musicians are both heavy-hitters in the rarefied East Bay: Amendola plays with Mike Patton and Charlie Hunter; Blades tours with Billy Martin. But last Friday, they lent their talents to transform a downtown coffee shop into a swanky jazz venue.
That wasn't lost on Awaken Cafe's night manager, Oliver Greenlaw, who seemed exultant when he introduced the duo. "Are you ready for the future of jazz?" he asked a crowd of about forty, strewn about the room on bar stools and folding chairs. The audience members varied widely: There were stylish young women, couples on dates, and a man with a rubber fish sticking out of his breast pocket. The bartenders wore rumpled sweaters and sported sleeve tattoos; the tables bore vases with sunflowers. Everyone applauded — Greenlaw's enthusiasm was contagious.
Blades sat at his Hammond and pounded out the intro line to Thelonious Monk's "Nutty," the first of several standards that he and Amendola would play that night. They hewed to the original form, combining a loose swing rhythm with solos that never strayed too far from the melody of the tune. Dusk was settling outside, and for a moment, at least, Blades' organ was swaddled in blue twilight. Customers craned their necks and pivoted in their chairs to watch. The rubber fish guy looked bedazzled.
Blades and Amendola have been collaborating since 2003 and performing in duo form since 2006. They mix tunes from the American Songbook with originals — that night's set included several from Duke Ellington's Far East Suite, Amendola's "Lima Bean" and "Blues for Istanbul," and Blades' "Mae Mae" — tailoring everything for an ultra-lean setup. Though some tunes featured meaty chords and extravagant melody lines, the musicians tended to emphasize the raw elements: drum solos that started on the rim of a snare, organ bass lines that had the satisfying thwunk of a Seventies funk band — songs that could amplify gradually but end on a diminuendo. Blades used his Leslie speaker for dramatic effect, but his improvisations were never too gaudy. Amendola, who occasionally uses pots and pans to enhance his recordings, sounded more like a traditional jazz drummer in this outfit.
Drum-organ duos are somewhat unusual but certainly not unheard of, and they have a lineage in the jazz world, Blades said. The first he can recall is organist Larry Young and drummer Elvin Jones, who recorded a two-piece version of "Monk's Dream" on the 1964 album Unity; the most famous might be Benevento/Russo, a Brooklyn-based band that launched in the early 2000s. Blades has actually been playing in duo format with various drummers in the Bay Area; his other project with drummer Billy Martin uses a similar template, though it's more funk- and groove-driven.
Whether or not a small spate of like-minded combos constitutes a "trend" is debatable; the larger point, for Blades, is that such things have enough audience appeal for local venues to take a chance on them. And their relationship appears to be mutually beneficial: Greenlaw said the cafe began booking live performances as a way to raise its own profile and become more of a go-to spot for nightlife. That's a vision that Awaken Cafe owner Cortt Dunlap had when he opened the first iteration of the coffee shop on 14th Street.
But it's really come to fruition in the new digs, which are brighter and bigger, with walls that are tall enough to fit an art exhibition and exposed pipe on the ceiling. Dunlap hasn't really tweaked the acoustics for live music, but from Blades' perspective, it's perfectly serviceable.
In securing their new space, Dunlap and his staff became boosters of the local art and music scenes, including the ones that are trying to stave off doom. Greenlaw readily acknowledged that when brought Blades and Amendola back onstage for an encore. "Charlie Hunter moved to New York because he thought jazz was dead in the East Bay," he announced, in the tone of a politician ready to launch a stump speech. He paused dramatically, allowing a few nettled jazz fans to boo and hiss. Amendola, who's a longtime Hunter collaborator, remained sensibly quiet.
But Greenlaw ended on a bright note. "I think these two have proved that jazz is alive and well," he said, gesturing to the two musicians. They dutifully launched into "Deep Eyes," a yet-unrecorded ballad that Amendola wrote for his daughter. They played it with the easy nonchalance of cafe musicians.