Unbridled musicianship can still be accessible

Jonathan Scales stands illustrated on the cover of his third album, Character Farm & Other Short Stories, wielding pan sticks with two glowing fists and a sort of wayward look. Scales is on a mission: to save the steel pans from obscurity. And with another formidable release, Scales might just be the defiant superhero the pans have needed.

The album opens up with “Jam We Did,” where pans and their haunting, bell-sounding ring slowly summon a dark, once-forgotten groove that carries through the entirety of the album.

“Muddy Vishnu” pokes at Scales’ influences (Muddy Waters and Mahavishnu Orchestra, among others) in a constantly ascending/descending riff-driven tumble. The track stops on a dime for a brief pan-fill or understated bass line, and just as quickly as it stops, picks right up again into the fray.

The ascending/descending theme carries on into the next track, “Science Fair Project,” with Kofi Burbridge (The Derek Trucks Band) taking lead on flute. The runs are breakneck, and punctuated similarly with dynamic breakdowns. It’s clear that Scales put a lot of time into crafting the album as a complete musical statement, not just a collection of individual songs. If you really want to enjoy Character Farm, put on a set of decent headphones, start at track one and end at track nine.

The album brings in some serious collaboration — besides Burbridge, Jeff Coffin (Béla Fleck and the Flecktones) takes up bass on “Hallucinations of the Dream Chasers,” along with Yonrico Scott (The Derek Trucks Band) on drums. It’s incredible to think that Scales just started playing pans in 2002, his freshman year at Appalachian State University, and is already receiving the attention of some of the most talented musicians in the nation. 

Steel pans have yet to really break through as a solo instrument outside of their indigenous context — perhaps the reason why Scales is garnering the comparison to Béla Fleck. The early pan-jazz movement made the instrument a replacement for the piano, but for the most part, pannists have stayed inside calypso and Afro-Caribbean music since the instrument’s invention.

Scales wasn’t the first to imagine the pans inside jazz fusion, but he was close. Jaco Pastorius tried his hardest to bring some light to the instrument with Holiday for Pans, an album that Warner Bros. rejected in 1983, calling it esoteric and unmarketable. On the bootleg, Pastorius takes the back seat (some of his parts were even illegally overdubbed after his death) and provides a vehicle for Othello Molineaux — the only person that can be called Scales’ contemporary — to push the pans. It was close, but its impact was ultimately lost in stolen master tapes and label bureaucracy.

Scales and his Fourchestra pick up where Molineaux and Pastorius left off. Those aren’t names you just toss around; Pastorius practically invented fusion bass. But Character Farm shows chops, creativity and ambition.

As someone who grew up listening to Pastorius, John McLaughlin and his offshoots, Pat Metheny and all the legends of jazz fusion, it’s hard to not get downright giddy listening to this album. It’s a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways — jazz fusion didn’t die in the ‘70s, I’m not saying that. But Scales has the ability to do what Mahavishnu Orchestra did with Birds of Fire and what Béla Fleck and the Flecktones did with Outbound — which is to show that unbridled musicianship can still be accessible while pushing instruments into new territory. I am simply proud to live in a town that can facilitate a budding genius like Scales.


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