written by Tom Baggott
Jonathan Scales is one of the most innovative steel pannists on the planet, and is redefining and challenging traditional expectations of his signature instrument. In his hands, the sonic palette of an instrument often associated with cruise ships and tropical resorts is radically expanded to mimic the role of horns, piano, vibraphone or marimba due to his stunning, virtuosic technique. Scales’ mesmerizing compositions have captivated listeners and elevated him to the status of a true composer, forging new territory in the medium of instrumental music.
Although Scales’ writing produces songs that are ultimately accessible and danceable, the compositions can be remarkably complex and difficult to perform. As a result, the power trio whimsically named Jonathan Scales Fourchestra has always had a fluid lineup top-notch musicians, and even included an “all-star” version with bassist MonoNeon (Prince, Ghost Note), drummer Robert “Sput” Searight (Snarky Puppy, Snoop Dogg) and percussionist Weedie Braimah (Trombone Shorty, Nth Power), as well as a number of other talented marquee value players. Throughout these changes, Scales has demonstrated remarkable perseverance and persistence, a topic that he presented in a TED Talk, while continuing to write and develop his craft and touring the North American and European club and festival circuit—as well as dates in Japan, Central America and The Caribbean. Scales also represented the United States through the Department of State as a musical ambassador in a four week concert tour of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Indonesia in early 2017, an honor for which he was chosen from among three hundred finalists.
Jonathan Scales’ newest release, PILLAR—his sixth album, and fourth release on taste-maker label Ropeadope—is a testament to the grit and tenacity he possesses, while also serving as an introduction of his new, full-time rhythm battery consisting of bassist E’Lon JD and drummer Maison Guidry. These two formidable young lions hold their own in the company of an incredible cast of special guests, including bassists Victor Wooten, Oteil Burbridge and MonoNeon, trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, saxophonist Jeff Coffin, keyboardist Shaun Martin, percussionist Weedie Braimah and banjo pioneer Béla Fleck. It is the inclusion of Béla Fleck on this record that stands out most notably in context of Scales’ own personal story, and in this regard, PILLAR represents a remarkable victory for the music lover inside of the 37-year-old Brooklyn-based artist.
As a young man at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, Jonathan was inspired by the compositions of Béla Fleck, and would often arrive early at Flecktones concerts, hoping to speak with his hero, as memorialized in an early Fourchestra song called “Lurkin’”. Whereas Scales’ talent and creativity could have been focused on other instruments he studied, such as saxophone, he fell in love with the sound of the steel pans. Hearing Béla Fleck’s transformative approach to the banjo had a significant, even reassuring impact on Jonathan, who was already independently seeking to rethink how steel pans could be played and employed in compositions. In fact, Driftwood Magazine made a similar observation, when it wrote that “Scales is to steel pans what Béla Fleck is to the banjo—an über innovator.” Still lurking whenever he could at Flecktones shows, Jonathan was writing his own tasteful, outside-the-box, avant-garde compositions, and independently released his first three albums while performing regionally in the Southeastern U.S.. His band was establishing a reputation as something of an outlier, and attracted the attention of Ropeadope Records, who released Jonathan Scales Fourchestra’s eponymous debut—fully orchestrated with horns and strings—in 2013. The record reached #6 on the iTunes Jazz charts.
Jonathan’s persistence was rewarded when Flecktones members Victor Wooten, Howard Levy, Jeff Coffin and Roy “Futureman” Wooten—the inspiration for the album Mixtape Symphony (Ropeadope)— began to make appearances on recordings and at live shows. Béla Fleck himself was also beginning to take notice: in considering Scales’ 2016 cover of his composition “The Imposter”, he remarked “To say I am impressed would be a gross understatement…”. Scales’ dream-come-true moment happened in June 2016, when he was invited to perform with Béla Fleck & The Flecktones at a large outdoor concert in Richmond, VA. Over the course of these three formative years, Jonathan developed a close bond with Victor Wooten, and has appeared many times as a guest artist at his annual Bass Camp, and in May 2018 he was a featured performer on a Victor Wooten date in North Carolina, sharing the stage with legendary drummer Dennis Chambers in a trio format, as well as performing duets with Wooten.
Bringing the relationship full circle, Béla Fleck’s performance on the song “Focus Poem” serves as something of an affirmation of the young composer’s talent and persistence. PILLAR is a record stacked with world-renowned virtuosos performing at the top of their games, which have inspired and encouraged Jonathan Scales to push forward and ultimately come into his own as an artist. Jonathan himself, deeply honored and humbled by his musical heroes’ appreciation and support of his art, describes the album as a culmination of ten years of dedication and hard work, and “…a soundtrack to loss, focus, perseverance and triumph. Like pillars, we stand strong on unsteady ground, weathering life's storms. Like pillars, we must sometimes be reconstructed and revitalized to withstand the crushing weight of our own worlds.”