Steel yourself

Think of steel drums, and what comes to mind? Probably images of white-sand beaches, rum punch, coconut palms and that happy, rhythmic music that goes hand-in-hand with Caribbean vacations.

The beat of a different drummer: Jonathan Scales is bringing the steel drum into the realm of jazz. Photo By Jonathan Welch

Unless, that is, those steel drums are being played by Asheville-based musician Jonathan Scales. “I can technically do it,” he says of the sound that originated in Trinidad. “And I love that kind of stuff—it’s just not my thing.”

Scales’ thing is much more influenced by the likes of Béla Fleck, the virtuoso banjo player known for infusing his newgrass riffs with jazz nuances. A listen to Scales’ material reveals intricately layered sounds—the crisp snap of snare (thanks to noted percussionist Jeff Sipe), the thump of funk bass, limber brass (provided by Jeff Coffin of Fleck’s band, The Flecktones) and, rising through that sonic tapestry, the bells-meets-xylophone voice of the steel drum. Musical traditions are deconstructed, with nods to modern influences, calling to mind urban landscapes. Nowhere is there a palm tree or a whiff of tanning oil.

All of this may seem like a leap for the steel drum, but Scales is at home in uncharted territory. Originally a saxophone player, he happened on steel drums while a student at Appalachian State University, a school with an entire steel-drum program. A friend encouraged Scales to try out for the program and, once accepted, “I just kept practicing,” he recalls. “I knew I wanted to perform.”

Scales continues, “There was something natural about the steel drums. After about a year, I felt more comfortable with the steel drums than I ever did with the saxophone.”

Trying new things (new instruments, in particular) might come easily for the musician, because he grew up in a military family. Born in San Francisco, he’s lived all over the United States, as well as in Germany (which he names as his favorite place), though “I wouldn’t want to live there [because] I know how to get the ball rolling in the American music scene.”

In fact, after college, Scales relocated to Asheville, where he set about recording his debut CD, One-Track Mind (2007), which proved to be anything but one-track. Jazz Times called it “joyously inventive.” Another reviewer suggested Scales was “influenced by banjo virtuosos, Chinese acrobats, French soccer heroes, controversial rappers, John Cage, pop superstars, Tim Burton films and Russian jugglers.”

But even with those accolades under his belt, Scales proved a harsh self-critic. “None of those songs were ever played live before the recording,” he says. So, he test-drove an album’s worth of new material and went back into the studio. His just-released Plot/Scheme is a fully realized collection that seems to have satisfied the musician.

“I felt like, the first CD, I hope people like it, but I knew I could do better work,” Scales admits. “I wanted the next step up. That was the motivation for me. But now that I have this one out, I’m OK for a couple years.”

That “next step up” proved to be the star-studded Scheme, showcasing not only the steel drum but contributions from Sipe (the two met at a Stella Blue show, and Scales invited Sipe to play on Scheme) and jazz saxophonist Coffin. Scales met Coffin while studying in Boone, and jammed during a sound check with the Flecktones. When it was time to record his next album, the steel drummer invited the renowned sax player to lay down tracks, an experience Scales recalls as “literally a dream come true.”

As with Mind, Scheme is a cross-pollination of instruments and ideas too easily filed under “world music.” Scales explains: “I wouldn’t necessarily classify myself as world music. Steel drums could be classified as world music, but I like to play more contemporary, complex stuff that isn’t found in world music.”

“Fusion” is a better fit, though this musician knows he’s not the first to go there. “There’s always been a jazz-fusion thing going on, ever since Miles Davis was doing it in the 1970s,” Scales says. He sums fusion up as something people either like or don’t like, but this musician seems to have hit on a formula—albeit an unexpected one—that continues to win him fans.

who: Jon Scales Fourchestra
what: Steel-drum-led jazz fusion
where: Rocket Club
when: Thursday, July 10 (www.therocketclub.net or 505-2494)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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