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Thursday, December 12, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Scaling the heights with pan
Just out with his fourth album— the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra, Jonathan Scales is one of the hardest working pan jazz performers in the United States, averaging nearly 100 concerts a year and growing. The youthful Scales (he’s only 28 years old) displays a musical versatility well beyond his years and throughout his amazing career as a full-time pan performer, he has wowed audiences up and down the East Coast of the United States and is more and more touring the whole country. The centrepiece of Scales pan activity is his band Fourchestra. Despite the name, the band (which originally was a quartet) is a trim and sparse trio featuring double second pans, electric bass, and drums. Scales and his Fourchestra forge new ground in the pan world and create a sound that mixes jazz, jam band, and R&B, with a widening number of distinctly original compositions. The result is a sound unlike anything being created in the Caribbean today.
Scales’ obsession with pan is well over a decade in the making. Originally trained as a saxophone player, Scales was raised in a military family and bounced around the US, before settling in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He had never heard pan or steelband music before entering college and it was here at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, that Scales got his first taste of sweet pan music. APU had an established pan programme founded and directed by Dr Scott Meister and their university steelband called Steely Pan has a history that stretches back to 1984. Dr Meister came under the tutelage of the legendary Ellie Mannette in the early 1980s and Steely Pan has repeatedly gone down to Trinidad for Panorama. As a freshman at Appalachian State, Scales’ involvement with pan was rather unexpected, “My friends convinced me to join the steelband right when I got to college. I had never played before and honestly wasn’t really that interested. My mission was just to study composition and I didn’t really want to be involved in a lot of other things. “I had a friend who was auditioning for the steel band. I thought to myself...if she can do it, I definitely can do it! I auditioned and got it and that’s how I ended up on double seconds!”
Soon afterward Scales became obsessed with pan and, no doubt bitten by the pan jumbie, discovered that it was all he wanted to play. While in college, he further explored the music of pan by arranging songs from Walt Disney’s The Lion King for the steelband, as well as focusing on his own original compositions for pan. After four years, Scales received his degree in music composition and immediately set out on his own to play pan, barnstorming at jazz, blues, and rock clubs and festivals. While Scales is the primary composer for the Fourchestra, the band is a collaborative effort and he notes a great deal of interaction goes on in creating the pieces on his latest release—Jonathan Scales Fourchestra. “In the case of this album, there were times where I knew the over-arching concept that I wanted to go for and then enlisted the rest of the Fourchestra to compose their own parts within those parameters. “Then there were times where I was inspired by things that Cody Wright and Phill Bronson had come up with and built upon their ideas to create compositions. Then there are pieces like Lurkin’ that I wrote, where Cody’s and Phill’s interpretations really add a lot to the piece, even though they didn’t compose it.”
Cody Wright (bass) and Phill Bronson (drums and percussion) have worked with Scales for nearly three years and their longevity in the band is on full display in Jonathan Scales Fourchestra. Compared to his previous work, the band’s sound is jelled and their interplay borders on telepathic. Scales’ music is deeply influenced by many musicians from a variety of genres with the all-universe banjoist Bela Fleck ranking as one of the more obvious. On this album, Scales features two guests from the Bela Fleck famous band, the Flecktones. Howard Levy adds piano and harmonica on several tracks and the amazing Victor Wooten offers his bass majesty on another track. Scales was a fan of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones since his teenage years and a chance meeting with band, which turned into an impromptu jam session, during a pre-gig sound check several years ago, sparked a relationship that continues to this day. The Flecktones represent just one of the many varied influences the drive Scales’ music.
Scales still faces many audiences who are mystified by pan. “Many people say they’ve never seen a steelpan in real life and don’t know what to call it. Other people tell me that it ‘reminds them of their honeymoon in Jamaica.’ I definitely let people know about the roots of the pan in T&T. Even though I’m not from there, I’m glad to be a part of it.” Scales first came to Trinidad in the summer of 2005 and returned in 2009 to perform at the Jazz on the Greens festival held on the UWI campus in St Augustine. “That was a pinnacle point for me because Trinis showed a lot of love for what I was doing,” he smiles to recall. “I was really worried about how Trinidadians would view my original material, but after the show everyone made me feel welcomed in their world.” Matt Ehlers at McCallum High School Fine Arts Academy in Austin, Texas, is the first to arrange his music for steelband but will not be the last. Ehlers is high in his praise of Scales. “With Jonathan’s unique and inventive compositional style, arranging his music for full steel did present a few challenges but the end product was well worth it. His music has become a fixture in our repertoire at McCallum, that in combination with the Fourchestra yearly visits to our school has made he and his group rock stars with all of my students.”
Liam Teague, noted pan virtuoso and associate professor of steelpan at Northern Illinois University, notes that “I absolutely love Jonathan Scales’ music. He draws from so many styles of music and one would be hard pressed to find anything like what he brings to the table in the steelpan world. His music very effectively marries the intellect and emotion.” Scales was a guest artist at the 2012 Northern Illinois Steelband spring concert and Teague recalls that the Fourchestra “left an unforgettable impression. I think that he [Scales] is a wonderful ambassador for the steelpan!” Scales’ and his Fourchestra are unique in the pan world and his compositions are not likely to be heard at Panorama anytime soon, but one never knows, and in the meantime he is creating great new music for the instrument.
Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist and percussionist who wrote his dissertation on pan in America and directs a steelband at a college in Minnesota.
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