The Jonathan Scales Fourchestra has hit its stride — as a trio. But the discrepency of the name works itself out in the local steel pan-fusion band’s favor, says Scales. “We’re already a strange collective, so it’s just one more little thing that makes it even stranger.” He adds that the Fourchestra name is a brand at this point: “You can’t just change that. So, even if it’s five people, it’s still going to be the Fourchestra.”
The group is steel pan player Scales with Phill Bronson on drums and Cody Wright on bass. So solidified is this current iteration of the Fourchestra that the three co-wrote their forthcoming, self-titled album. “It’s my fourth album, but in a lot of ways it’s the first Fourchestra album,” says Scales. On the previous three records, he made all of the decisions, and he was comfortable in the driver’s seat. “If I wanted to take a certain part out or if I wanted to change something, I had the ability to do that on my own,” he says. The new collective approach can be a challenge, he admits. “But at the end of the day, it’s cool to have a project where everyone has put their best foot forward and a lot of people are working on the same thing.”
That thing they’ve all been pursuing so diligently? Eight tracks that take cues from jazz and prog-rock, but also from more fanciful inspirations. “Contortionist Ballet” is a carnival of bouncing steel drum and galloping bass, as humorous as it is spooky. “Specifically” pairs deep grooves, lithe melodies and Caribbean flavors (only here the sunny brightness is tempered with a creeping dark). The avant-garde “Turns Out” is shimmering cymbals, jogging bass lines and nimble steel pan explorations that meet a dynamic handclaps-and-auxilliary-percussion breakdown. There’s also a diaphanous rendition of Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose,” a rare cover for the Fourchestra.
Two of the album’s outstanding tracks feature guest appearances: Harmonica player, pianist and composer Howard Levy contributed to “Lurkin’,” and bassist Victor Wooten plays on “Life After D.” Both Levy and Wooten are associated with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, a band that Scales discovered while in college. He says that band strongly influenced his musical career. In ’04, just a couple of years into playing the pans, Scales went to a Flecktones show early enough to jam with the band during soundcheck. From then on, he kept in touch with those musicians and cultivated the relationships that eventually led to the star-studded guest spots on the Fourchestra’s new album.
Scales says that he wrote “Lurkin’” based on “an experience I had with Bela Fleck. It came out really nicely. That’s one I’ve enjoyed being able to play live and one that collectively we feel really proud of.”
“Life After D.,” meanwhile, is funky and soulful; the steel drum a crisp response to Wooten’s almost menacing bass parts. Working with Wooten, says Scales, was an unusual experience: “One minute I’m a super-fan and in the next minute we’re calling each other trying to figure out technical difficulties because of a file upload or something.”
The album’s official release date is Tuesday, July 9, but Asheville gets an advance listen. The Fourchestra holds a hometown release party at The Altamont Theatre this week. And for those who haven’t heard the trio in a while, prepare to be surprised. “There’s a huge difference between where the band is now and where it was,” says Scales. “It’s very special, but in our minds, this is where we are now.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Jonathan Scales Fourcestra, Casey Driessen opens
what: Hometown album release show
where: The Altamont Theatre
when: Saturday, June 1 (8 p.m. $10. http://myaltamont.com)