Jonathan Scales Extends Steel Pan Territory

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Jonathan Scales carves out a space in the jazz world for his instrument on his latest album, Pillar (Ropeadope).

(Photo: Courtesy of Artist)

Béla Fleck knows a thing or two about establishing an identity in the jazz world while playing an unusual instrument. So, it made sense that the banjo player would bond with a younger jazz musician whose specialty is an unusual instrument: steel pannist Jonathan Scales.

“I see a kindred spirit in him—in his need to be the best he can be,” Fleck said. “I identify with his struggle to learn jazz on an instrument where it’s hard to find the path, because currently there isn’t a clear one for pans or banjo.”

Fleck plays with Scales and his band, Fourchestra, on “Focus Poem,” a track on Scales’ sixth album, Pillar (Ropeadope). The clipped twang of his banjo fits well with the distinctive ping of the steel pan.

“[The Flecktones] are such a big influence on me,” Scales said. “I wouldn’t be here without them. I’ve worked very hard at getting to know them, driving for hours, so I could be at their show seven hours before they went on, so I could talk to them and maybe play with them at sound check.”

Just as the banjo is closely associated with Appalachian music, the steel pan is tightly linked to Trinidadian calypso. But just as Fleck liberated his instrument, Scales has freed the pans, crafting a jazz-rock fusion on the new album, which also features trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, among others.

It was at North Carolina’s Appalachian State University that Scales fell in love with the pans. Due to the efforts of now-retired professor Scott Meister, the school had its own steel pan orchestra, punfully named the Steely Pan Steel Band. Oddly enough, Scales initially was not interested in the group. “My friends twisted my arm, and I joined the band,” he recalled. “I loved it. It was the perfect combination of rhythm and melody.”

In 2013, Scales dubbed his quartet the Fourchestra, and kept the name even after the group was trimmed down to a trio, which now includes bassist E’Lon JD and drummer Maison Guidry.

“When I was in college,” Scales said, “I had this idea that I would create a jazz band with steel pans and it would be totally unique. Then my friend told me, ‘Yo, Andy Narell exists.’ ... I’ve been to Trinidad three times, and I’m definitely not turning my back on tradition. But I’m going to play the music I want to play. I grew up listening to Dr. Dre and Eminem, then studying classical saxophone and orchestral and film score music. I want to get it all in there.” DB




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April 2019
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