Steel Pan Alley

Moving beyond the island associations: Scales is drumming the line between complex jazz and straight rock.

Jonathan Scales has a look that suggests both Mos Def and Thelonious Monk. His appearance is, of course, incidental to his music, but it does speak to the diverse musical lineage Scales brings to his work at the front of his eponymous Fourchestra.

As the band draws from classical composition, jazz, rock and hip-hop, Scales’ Fourchestra feels as comfortable in an auditorium as a barroom. “On the one side, we’re doing something very academic and complicated, so on one side, we’re coming from that jazz side and the performing arts side,” Scales says. “But on the other side, it’s like a straight rock band. We get in the van and we travel, not knowing what we’re going to run into.”

Fittingly, Scales spoke to Xpress shortly after a gig in Philadelphia, on the way to a two-night stand in New York City. Already this year, Scales and his band — now a trio with bassist Cody Wright, drummer Phill Bronson and Scales playing steel drums — has toured across North Carolina, into Tennessee and the Midwest. Earlier in May, they played the roots-mecca festival MerleFest in Wilkesboro. And the band’s calendar already has dates inked through November. Saying the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra is keeping busy doesn’t begin to do it justice.

But that constant and flexible touring has helped the band refine an already unique sound. The steel pan is a chromatically pitched percussion instrument developed in Trinidad and Tobago, and known for its ringing metallic timbre and its use in Caribbean music. Scales picked up the instrument as a freshman at Appalachian State University in 2002 when he joined the University’s Steely Pan Steel Band, under the direction of Scott Meister.

Scales came to Appalachian State as a saxophonist, eager to study composition. He’d been inspired after seeing Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes — or, more aptly, after hearing the Danny Elfman score that accompanied it — to pursue a career making his own film scores. He joined the Steel Band, reluctantly at first, at the encouragement of some friends. Having played in his high-school drumline, the instrument was a natural fit, and provided an interesting complement to his studies of the classical saxophone repertoire.

“It’s really a very outward, thinking-outside-of-the-box type of composition studio [at Appalachian State],” he says. “It was kind of like a double whammy, because on one side we had steel band doing really cool arrangements, then the same guy running that is the same guy teaching about Stravinsky and John Cage and all these great 20th century composers. It was a good combination.”

Touring with the Steel Band, molding classical, pop and traditional Caribbean music into its repertoire, proved informative for Scales’ later work. He’d absorb that open-eared approach to the instrument and the impulse to take the show on the road from those experiences. But he didn’t set out with any goals of changing the way the steel drum is played and heard. “I wanted to be a composer, and it just so happened that steel pan is what I like the sound of, and I just put that into the music that I was already doing,” he says.

In 2007, he released his first album, One-Track Mind. Plot/Scheme followed a year later. Early on, Scales admits he had to coax listeners beyond the novelty factor of his chosen instrument. Lately, that’s less of a concern. The island associations haven’t disappeared completely, but they’re no longer bothersome. “It’s like, OK, if it reminds them of that, then that’s fine,” Scales says. “I don’t necessarily see that, but sure. A lot of people still associate the instrument with that kind of thing. It doesn’t bother me anymore.”

It’s easy to forget you’re listening to steel drums on his latest, Character Farm & Other Short Stories. Scales’ third album arrived last year, touting guest appearances from saxophonist Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones), flutist Kofi Burbridge and percussionist Yonrico Scott of the Derek Trucks Band, and fiddle player Casey Dreissen.

Despite his guests’ credentials, though, Scales and his band (which at the time of recording also included guitarist Duane Simpson) never cede the spotlight. Bronson and Wright form a formidable rhythm section, swinging hard hip-hop grooves with the same finesse they bring to laid-back jazz shuffles. Simpson’s blues-informed guitar provided an overt link to jam-band rock. Scales, meanwhile, shows himself a deft bandleader, able to take the lead with ringing, lyrical melodies, or to take a backseat coloring the background with bright, textural playing.

Live, Scales says the songs have taken on new qualities, too. “Now that it’s been road-tested and we’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t work, we’re able to kind of stretch out from even what was on the recordings.” However Scales and his Fourchestra continue to evolve. The broad outlook Scales brings to his compositions all but ensures it’ll be a good look for the outfit.

— Bryan Reed is the online editor at Shuffle Magazine, and a regular contributor to publications including MAGNET and Paste.

who: Jonathan Scales, with Casey Driessen
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, June 2 (9 p.m. $8/$10.

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