Jonathan Scales’ mission is to demonstrate that steel pan music can be more than the Caribbean-flavored percussion that his instrument is associated with. Steel pans or drums originated on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.
Composer Scales on steel pan along with his bass, drums and miscellaneous percussion band make music with international flair. Their sound has been celebrated for originality and energetic vibe. Jonathan Scales Fourchestra will perform at 9 p.m. as the Jazz in June headliner at Brookhaven Village, 3700 W. Robinson St.
“I have a group together now that understands the music coming out of my head,” Scales said. “They’re able to execute this in a way that people can absorb. We don’t do many covers, and it’s nice to present a show of original music.”
Scales, 34, has recorded six albums. His self-titled freshman LP "Ropeadope Records" made it to No. 6 on iTunes jazz charts in 2013. The Appalachian State University alum has toured in North America, Europe and Asia. He’s a sought-after collaborator who has worked with luminaries such as Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten and Dennis Chambers. The young lion has learned from these senior statesmen of jazz, and they’ve been invigorated by his passion for the genre.
Possibly because of his unique use of steel pan in jazz, Scales has found some verbal explanation with listeners to be helpful.
“There can be a disconnect between a general audience and those playing instrumental music live,” Scales said. “Whenever I open up about my music, the meaning of it and significance behind it, people grasp it even better. Even when there aren’t any lyrics. So I take the time to let people know about the songs, where I’m coming from and where my head’s at.”
Scales learned a valuable lesson about himself and creativity before even leaving university. A professor taught him a technique, and the assignment was to write a composition using it. Scales had a week to do it, but the muse never appeared. The professor asked to see his work.
“I told him I didn’t have it because I hadn’t been inspired,” Scales said. “He told me if I was going to make a living writing music, I couldn’t just sit around and wait for inspiration to come. You have to produce it from somewhere.”
The educator’s words had their desired effect.
“Now when I think about writing music, I think about improvisation,” he said. “A jazz artist uses the tools in their tool belt, including mistakes, in order to make music spontaneously. I’ve learned to use these tools over the years to create on the spot.
"I don’t toil over little pieces, making sure they’re just right, treating composition like improvisation. Because of that, my inspirations come from so many different places, depending on where I am or what I’m doing at the time. I could be sitting next to a guitar that’s out of tune. I was able to find inspiration from that and make something I never would have thought of before.”
Scales had an opportunity in 2017 to serve his country in the U.S. Department of State’s American Music Abroad exchange program.
“That was really a special trip,” Scales said. “It was a month long to Taiwan, China, Indonesia and Hong Kong. As a touring musician, it was almost like a vacation because others were helping me organize everything. I’m used to doing all that myself. It was a tour where I just had to show up with the music. So it was a breath of fresh air just to focus on the art.
"It was really cool to interact with some people who’d never even been to a show like that, heard my music or seen an instrument like mine before. There was a lot of openness in these other cultures about what we were doing. Sometimes we got to work with other musicians, in addition to just the concerts.”
Scales had another government gig in Almaty, Kazakhstan, just days before Jazz in June.
“I’m used to jumping from one place to another,” he said. “I’ve played a lot in Oklahoma; I love it and I’m looking forward to coming back.”