Jonathan Scales Fourchestra explores long-form

In the mix: “One thing about being a composer is to know the rules so that you can break the rules," says steel pan player Jonathan Scales, right. His new album, Mixtape Symphony, works with long-form songs. Photo by Zaire Kacz

Since 2010, Jonathan Scales and Roy “Futureman” Wooten have crossed paths roughly three or four times a year. On each occasion, whether it be Wooten sitting in with the Asheville steel pannist and his eponymous Fourchestra or generally imparting knowledge to Scales’ captive mind, the percussionist for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones has charged his mentee with an important mission.

“He calls me ‘a man named Scales’ and says, ‘A man named Scales, he gotta write long-form,’” Scales says. “Long-form is this practice of writing these epic pieces. Not just a 3 1/2 minute song, but more like a musical journey that takes the listener through several phases. More like a grander work or a symphonic idea.”

After what he calls “years and years” of Wooten preaching to him about pushing the art form to new compositional heights, Scales at last decided to heed those words with Mixtape Symphony, his latest album with bassist Cody Wright and percussionist Phill Bronson. A record release show, slated for Friday, June 6, at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall celebrates the dense, 33-minute work.

The title alludes to a dual nature in numerous ways. First, there’s the symphony aspect. “We have this multimovement work … where it’s a grander image, a grander vision for music where one song leads seamlessly into the next song,” Scales says. “But there’s this ongoing, overarching vibe that you might hear in a symphonic work.

“At the same time, on the mixtape side, each of those pieces can stand on its own as its own piece,” he continues. “So, there are these little pieces that come together that can make a grander statement.”

Ambitious though the project may be, due to its relative brevity and completion not quite a year after the Fourchestra’s 2013 self-titled album, Scales also compares the work to the mixtapes that rappers put out between their major releases. As such, he and his bandmates never intended the guest-free record to be an event album, but after reaching No. 6 on the iTunes jazz charts, it was clear that the Fourchestra has something special on its hands.

In crafting the long-form work, Scales set a goal for himself not to overthink the process. Well aware of symphonic conventions from his studies at Appalachian State University, he, Wright and Bronson aimed to merely allude to these patterns while keeping innovation at the forefront.

“One thing about being a composer is to know the rules so that you can break the rules. And I know the rules,” says Scales. “I’ve studied sonata form, I’ve studied symphonies, and so I kind of wanted to free all that for a second and just go for whatever I wanted to. In this case, it’s all about motivic development and having certain themes reappear and certain ideas.”

At the outset, it may not seem that all five movements are connected, other than the fact that each piece flows seamlessly into the next. While the listener is almost certain to catch that effect, little motivic fragments that get passed along in different movements will likely prove elusive. For example, the theme from Movement IV is the same as the theme from Movement I but is masked in a different key with a different feel. “It’s easy for that to go over someone’s head if they’re not listening for it, but it ties it all together whether they realize it or not,” Scales says.

Then there’s the Mixtape Symphony’s sixth track, a titular reprise that sneakily goes through a cycle of all five movements in, according to Scales, “a minute or less.” Beyond it is the closing number, “Desert [Encore],” a composition from the Fourchestra’s out-of-print first album that complements the preceding movements.

“I wanted to treat it as if you were going to a symphonic concert, and so ‘Desert’ as an encore is kind of like a detachment from Mixtape Symphony,” Scales says. “The encore is just kind of like a palate cleanser: You sat through this entire concert, and now here’s an extra piece that we’re going to come out and do.”

Though the Fourchestra has played Mixtape Symphony live in its entirety, which is the plan for the Isis show, the stand-alone status of the songs lets the trio to select and perform individual ones to best fit each venue. However, even in its complete half-hour form, the opus allows for copious off-the-cuff variations that keep the music fresh. “The way that we set it up definitely combines our jazz influences and those elements to where there are certain parts that are going to be different every night, and there are certain parts, of course, that are going to be the same every night, just like you would in a symphony,” Scales says. “But the improvisation is something that’s an outside influence that’s not going to make it a true symphonic work.”

Sounds like Futureman’s challenge has been answered.

Jonathan Scales Fourchestra album release celebration
with Pamela Jones

Isis Restaurant & Music Hall,

Friday, June 6, at 9 p.m. $10/$12


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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