Jonathan Scales works the steel drum to pound out jazz beats

CorrespondentJuly 18, 2013 

Jonathan Scales Fourchestra will play Local 506 July 19th.

COURTESY OF MIKE MOREL

  • Details

    Who: The Brand New Life, with Jonathan Scales Fourchestra and Yandrew

    When: 9 p.m. Friday

    Where: Local 506, 506 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill

    Admission: $10

    Info: 919-942-5506;

    local506.com

The steel drum is an instrument usually associated with music that comes out of the islands. (After all, it is the official instrument of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.) Jonathan Scales doesn’t hail from a tropical setting – unless you consider San Francisco to be tropical. However, that hasn’t stopped him from a being a full-fledged steel drummer.

His love affair with the drums started when he was attending Appalachian State University. Scales had already been playing the saxophone since he was in middle school, but he felt the steel pans gave him more musical freedom.

“I just felt automatically comfortable on it, and I honestly felt like it was more my voice than the saxophone,” says Scales, 28, on the phone from his home in Asheville.

Instead of using steel drums for Caribbean rhythms, Scales uses them to create progressive jazz music with his band, the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra. Coming from a heavy jazz background, composing jazz-fusion music seemed like a natural thing for him to do.

“I just happened to write music that I was feeling, from my experiences listening – you know, listening to classical music, listening to traditional jazz, listening to progressive jazz of the ’70s, you know. There was really cool jazz in the ’70s, like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report and Return to Forever and bands like that.”

Scales has released several albums with a revolving number of background players. But for his latest, titled “Jonathan Scales Fourchestra,” it’s the first recording with his current band, which has Phill Bronson on drums and percussion and Cody Wright on bass. (There was a fourth guitar-playing member – hence the name – but that person left the group a couple of years ago. Scales decided to keep the name anyway.) As a sign of solidarity, Scales included creative input from his band mates on the album.

“In earlier days, it was a, like, constant influx and outflux of different players,” says Scales. “With this lineup, when it came time for me to give this album, I made the conscious decision to include more input, because this particular incarnation of the band has been together the longest.”

Scales isn’t the first artist to bring steel drums into the jazz-fusion world. Dave Samuels, Othello Molineaux and Spyro Gyra have all featured the instrument on their records. But people who usually associate steel drums with island music may find Scales and his music to be a bit unorthodox.

“There are some people expecting it to be something different,” he says. “People can understand it a lot better once they see us play live or once they hear the album or something like that, as opposed to just hearing about it.”

With Scales currently on tour promoting “Jonathan Scales Fourchestra” (he’ll be at Chapel Hill’s Local 506 Friday, as one of the opening acts for Greensboro world-music band The Brand New Life), he’s looking for more people to experience him, his crew and his enthusiastic steel drumming.

“I guess I want people to know that no matter what side or situation you’re coming from, whether you’re into jazz or you’re not really jazz – but you do like our music – no matter where you’re coming from, I guess it’s important for people to know that we’re very sincere in what we’re doing,” he said. “Some people who are more traditionalist, they might say, ‘Oh, this is not jazz’ or something like that. Then, some people who are more into traditional Caribbean music will say, ‘Oh, this is not traditional steel pan music’ – things like that … We just put our music out there the best we can and hope the people enjoy it.”

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