Jonathan Scales Fourchestra
To come across a band with a full-time steel pannist is rare. To come across a band with the steel pan as the central instrument is even more rare.
Originating in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, the percussion instrument appears in many popular songs but has never quite attained headliner status. Jonathan Scales aims to change that.
Scales is a classically-trained composer and steel pannist who has spent the past several years bringing his instrument to the musical forefront. Though a saxophonist in high school, a fateful recommendation from a friend to attend Appalachian State University placed Scales behind the steel pan.
At ASU from 2002 to 2006, Scales performed in the school's Steely Pan Band and recorded his first album, "One Track Mind." After graduation in 2007, Scales settled in Asheville and formed Jonathan Scales Fourchestra. The group released "Plot/Scheme" in 2008 and has played alongside many acclaimed acts, including The Wooten Brothers, Larry Keel & Natural Bridge, The Dukhs, and the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. In April 2011, Scales releases his third album "Character Farm and Other Short Stories."
"Character Farm" is a collection of nine instrumental "stories." The album is accompanied by a comic book design sleeve. Scales is depicted on the cover as a superhero wielding pansticks. Inside, artist Gregory Keyzer provides graphic interpretations of each song. With Scales' music being entirely instrumental, the visual aids are a nice touch that may help listeners better understand his vision.
Scales considers his music "jazz fusion." The steel pan is not traditionally associated with jazz, but he has adapted well to the style. Scales credits innovative banjoist Bela Fleck with inspiring him to disregard the imaginary boundaries placed on instruments.
The members of the Fourchestra, guitarist Duane Simpson, drummer Phill Bronson and bassist Michael Libramento, are excellent at jazz craft and assist Scales in achieving his distinct sound. The lengthy opener, "Jam We Did," is an excellent example of the camaraderie of the performers, with Scales opening the floor for everyone to have a solo. Another jam on the album, "Complete," showcases the members' jazz abilities and serves as proof that the steel pan can indeed be considered a jazz instrument.
Jonathan Scales does not limit himself to a strict jazz regimen. His penchant for experimentation is most obvious in the last two songs of "Character Farm." The appropriately titled "Science Fair Project" incorporates the flute of Kofi Burbridge, from the Derek Trucks Band. "The Trap," with guest Casey Driessen, could very well be the first time a fiddler and steel pannist have performed on the same song.
Other guests on "Character Farm" include Dave Matthews Band saxophonist Jeff Coffin and Derek Trucks Band percussionist Yonrico Scott. They join the Fourchestra on "Hallucinations of the Dream Chasers." The combination of steel pan, African percussion and the saxophone make it the most diverse song of the album.
Scales is promoting "Muddy Vishnu" as the first single from "Character Farm." The title is a cross between Muddy Waters and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a 1970s jazz fusion group. Verging on urban hip-hop territory, it furthers the idea that for Scales, the steel pan has no bounds. He has released a colorful video online, which is well worth checking out.
"Character Farm" solidifies Jonathan Scales' place as one of western North Carolina's most innovative and creative artists. Not only as a performer, but as the composer of all the music on the album, Scales is a groundbreaker.
Jonathan Scales is online at JonScales.com.