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Pan finds a new groove

US citizen takes instrument to another sphere
Published: 
Saturday, July 9, 2011
The Steely Pan Steel Band.

Perfect pitch, goes a musician joke, is throwing the banjo in the dumpster and hitting the accordion. Seriously, though, it’s a perfect combo when Jonathan Scales throws in the banjo  with the double second pan, considering his hard inquisitive compositions on his latest CD, Character Farm & Other Short stories. Scales, an American whose only Caribbean gene is our national instrument, has been pushing a radical departure from pan music in its 70 years of evolution from the bamboo, sweet oil tin and biscuit drum project, to today’s curious and refreshing galaxy of steely notes. Scales, 26, studied composition for saxophone at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. But he’s been hooked on pan since the day a friend steered him to the university pan side. Dr Scott Meister founded The Steely Pan Steel Band in 1984. Performing largely at schools and colleges, the band afforded Scales an opportunity to shine, the sax notwithstanding. Scales believed that if he had followed the Pied Piper of pan his skills would get better. So he spent four years on the pans until his graduation in 2006. He has never regretted the switch.

“Dr Meister visits Trinidad all the time, and made it a point to teach students in the band its history and culture,” he said. Scales has been to Trinidad twice, spending two weeks with fellow students at the UWI campus and taking in a session at Trinidad All Stars panyard. His goal is to trek up Laventille Hill to experience the mystique of Desperadoes.“As a composition student, I was really into Panorama arrangements. At the time my favourite arranger was Jit Samaroo. In college, we played some Panorama songs, like Pan in A Minor. I like Kitchener a lot.“I was inspired by the execution of All Stars. So, with my band, we do a lot of rehearsing, keeping the music tight, like the Trinidadians do for Panorama. “I was also inspired by the unity of sound by the entire band. A lot of crazy notes playing together. That takes a lot of work. Tremendous work ethic. Usually, when I listen to Panorama music, I’m in it for the arrangements, because I’m on the jazz compositional side of things, so I feel like I’m in the middle of a couple of different worlds.”

Scales studied 20th Century composers like Stravinski, John Cage, Aaron Copland and Arnold Schoenberg, who pioneered innovations in atonality that spurred controversy in modern music, and intensified his education by tracking the arcs of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and modern jazz players like Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and others. He plays a voguish style of pan at concerts and gigs across America. And he does so by articulating life and personal experiences that are crowned in a mélange of musical idioms and styles. Like the mix of instruments in the Panorama, each offers its own delicacy in a smorgasbord of sounds. But, with Scales, the buffet is spooned out as treats from his exotic mind.That Scales is a modernist in his experiment of an old-fashioned art form is not novel. Certainly, Miami-based Trinidadian Othello Molineaux—a steel pan legend who had set up his own universe of jazz with stellar stick play eons ago—has performed with the cream, from Jaco Pastorius to Dizzy Gillespie; Herbie Hancock to Monty Alexander; and Joe Zawinul to Ahmad Jamal.  

But Scales baggy style, drawing from country, folk, funk, rock, jazz, bluegrass and classical, brings a gritty guerilla adventure to the stage. Small wonder Béla Fleck, one of the world's most innovative and technically proficient banjo players, nominated in more categories than any other musician—has been a major influence. Fleck put a whole new spin on the banjo, Scales says. “Some really cool out-there jazz stuff.” That's how Scales structures his composition and extemporaneous artistry around his band. One cool instrument, of course, embodies their chemistry. “My compositions pull from other areas other than calypso and Panorama, and music that would normally be associated with steel drums. “I’m from a military family and I’ve lived around the world, with all the influences from the jazz side and growing up as an American kid listening to hip hop and rock, then studying the modern composition guys, so I just came out with my sound just from living my life experience.”