Flecktones friend: Scales’ work on the steel pan has been compared to Bela Fleck’s unique approach to the banjo

Jonathan Scales takes steel drum to the outer limits

The sound of a steel drum usually transports listeners to the lazy confines of a thatched hut bar on a Caribbean oceanfront. But Jonathan Scales hears it differently. Rooted in classically trained composition, the Asheville-based Scales has used the steel drum—also known as the steel pan—to concoct his own brand of dynamic jazz fusion. With the driving rhythm section of his Fourchestra, Scales delivers fluid solos that often toe the line between melodic dexterity and old-school be-bop, free-form fury. Through eclectic instrumental arrangements, Scales’ refreshing innovation takes his instrument out of expected context and into a variety of sonic realms—from improvisational jazz to hip-hop-flavored funk. It’s enabled Scales to mesh in a range of music scenes, collaborating on his most recent album with saxophonist Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band) and fiddler Casey Driesen and even landing an unexpected spot at Americana-bash Merlefest.

BRO: How did you find the steel pan and realize its potential as a jazz instrument?

JS: I played saxophone through college, but in high school I also started playing percussion. I went to Appalachian State University to be a composer, and when I got there, they had a steel band. My friends coerced me into being a part of it, and I fell in love from there.

How do you describe the sound you are trying to create?

I never set out to do something progressive on the steel drum. As a composer, the music that I hear in my head and want to write just happens to make the instrument sound progressive. As far as the complex side of things, I’m very influenced by modern 20th century composers like Igor Stravinsky and John Cage—guys who were pushing the envelope of orchestral music. Along with that, I’m also a young American who’s being influenced by popular music, everything from rap and hip-hop to rock. All of it kind of wraps together, and although it comes out complex, it’s also very familiar.

Your latest album is called Character Farm & Other Short Stories. Do you view your instrumental compositions as stories?

I give credit to Futureman of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, who’s always talked to me about writing in collective long form—the opposite of a pop artist who writes three-minute songs that don’t relate to each other. There is thought behind each of my pieces, so I wanted to put them together as a collective work. By calling it a set of short stories, it makes people approach it with that kind of focus. It’s not as cohesive as big Mozart work, but in my mind each of those pieces has a life of its own and they’re glued together with their own stories.

What’s the process for composing on the steel pan? 

Before I wrote any notes for a tune like “Pan Grass” [from the 2007 album One-Track Mind], I just thought how it would be cool to create a bluegrass tune on the steel pan and mix it with a Caribbean jazz rhythm. Ideas like that often make up the foundation of my compositions. I don’t always write on the steel pan. Sometimes I’ll use a guitar or piano, or sometimes I’ll just sing a melody.

Speaking of bluegrass, you played Merlefest earlier this year, known more for picking and singing than your style of eclectic jazz. How’d that go? 

It was overwhelming—in a good way. I had mixed feelings going into it, because I wasn’t sure how the crowd was going to react to our sound. But after our sets, people kept coming up to us and saying how much they liked what we were doing. Plus, during our set on the Hillside Stage, the Flecktones played with us, which was a dream come true.

People in this region—especially in Boone and Asheville—have been really receptive to what I do, so this has been a really good area to foster a fan base.

Mumford and Sons invade state street

British folk-rock heroes Mumford and Sons are turning the border town of Bristol into their own festival. On August 11, the band will bring their Gentlemen of the Road Stopover to State Street, located downtown on the Virginia/Tennessee line. The tour only has four stops in the U.S. (and just the one in the South), and will also feature sets by Dawes, Justin Townes Earle, Jeff the Brotherhood, the Apache Relay, and Simone Felice. Music will take place on an outdoor stage, as well as inside local clubs and theaters. gentlemenoftheroad.com