A Q&A with the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra

Interestingly, some of the most interesting and important music of life, whether as an obsessive audiophile or as a blogger (and the two are really intertwined these days), have been found through serendipitous discovery. And in the case of the Asheville, NC-based jazz/jazz fusion trio the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra, whose Character Farm and Other Stories landed at number 5 on this site’s 2011 Best Of List, they too were discovered in a rather serendipitous fashion – long story short: I caught them as they opened for the Providence, RI-based country act, Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons on a broiling, hot, summer night.

The Fourchestra have quickly developed a reputation across both their home state and other parts of the country for their unique compositions which not only display the amiably quirky wit and charm of the likes of Theolonius Monk and Horace Silver, but also a level of complexity behind an entirely approachable manner. Scales’ steel drum propels the compositions forward through harmony more so than rhythm and that frees drummer, Phill Bronson to attack his drum kit with unusual syncopation that manages to show elements of cocky, hip hop swagger and cool, bop jazz. And let’s not forget, Cody Wright, one of the most talented bassists I’ve seen in recent memory, brings to mind another young talented jazz bassist – Jaco Pastorius. 

The band’s forthcoming, self titled album, which officially drops on July 9th shows increasing growth both in the compositions and the musicianship – the compositions on the new album are just as complex as ever but they manage to be more cinematic and somehow more playful, as though they can easily be part of the score for a large ensemble style comedy. At other times, the material has a stunning beauty that’s balanced with bits of funk, bop-era jazz and others. Also the album marks a unique collaboration with two members of Bela Fleck’s band – Howard Levy and Victor Wooten for a couple of songs, which brings a different energy to the material. 

In this Q&A, I talked to the members of the Fourchestra via email while they were on a lengthy East Coast tour about the upcoming album; their influences; how the collaborations with Howard Levy and Victor Wooten about; and more. Check out the Q&A below.

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know music was the only thing you wanted to do? How did you get into playing your particular instrument?

Jonathan Scales: I really got into music in early middle school, I would say.  My dad had studied music in college, and so there were all kinds of books and things around the house that I would get into (I specifically remember a text book called Orchestration that I really liked to look at.) My family was really into Michael Jackson and Gospel music, so that was always playing around the house. In late high school, I realized that music was the only thing I wanted to do…I saw the re-make of Planet of the Apes with the music of Danny Elfman and immediately decided to pursue composition, which I already had a deep interest in.  It wasn’t until freshman year of college that I picked up the steel pans…friends twisted my arm into auditioning for the steel band at Appalachian State University and that was that!

WRH: Who are your influences?

JS: Béla Fleck, Björk, Eminem, Olympic athletes, jugglers and acrobats, Kanye West, magicians, theatre, polyglots, John Cage, Bach, Jay Z.

WRH: Who are you listening to now?

Phill Bronson: Lupe Fiasco, Outkast, Gradmaster Flash and the Furious 5, Esperanza [Spalding], Yma Súmac, Stanley Clarke, a Tribe Called Quest.

Cody Wright: Biréli Lagrène, Tommy Emmanuel, Roland Kirk, Punch Brothers, Chucho Valdez, Bola Sete, Wesley Willis (“Gingerbread Knocked Me Out”)

JS: This is a topic I don’t like to discuss publicly … I keep a lot of my musical thoughts to myself and only talk about what I listen to with very very close friends.  This stems from my perception of people judging other people based upon what that person listens to, and I tend to just stay out of subjectivity when I can…we can probably do a whole ‘nother interview about this later! (And yes you can put this statement in your blog!) 

WRH: How would you describe your sound?

JS: I try not to! I try to allow people to hear what we do, and base their own opinions and I try not to interfere with how they perceive [it]. BUT when I have to describe our sound, I’ll generally say: “I play the steel pans, but not in the traditional context that people are used to stereotypical[ly] hearing. Compositionally, I tend to bring in elements from different styles and try to blend them together in a different way, piecing things together with my own spin on rhythm, harmony, and melody. Some people call it jazz fusion, but to me that evokes a certain time period in music that might not completely describe us … I wish that we could just call it jazz, but the purist become upset! So I just let it be what it is! 

WRH: How would you describe the music scene down in Asheville, NC?

JS: The Asheville music scene is very open. It a great creative space to try and do what you want to do. At the same times it came seem saturated in the sense that the city is only but so big! So when 4 locally known bands are playing on the same Saturday night, it makes for an interesting scenario!  But, it’s awesome because Asheville gives artists a place where they can "cut their teeth” and be surrounded by like-minded individuals.  The town can be so loving to an artist that the trick is trying not to get “trapped” in Asheville…when you “make it” in Asheville, you just gotta remember there’s a whole world out there …

WRH: One of the things I’ve noticed is that during live sets, there’s this sense of best friends jamming together – there’s the simpatico that all three guys in the band share, and it only comes from a very special bond. How did the band meet?

CW:  I think we just all realize and embrace our stylistic differences, and see the benefits that they have on the overall sound of the group. Also, touring and traveling constantly somehow has an effect on the personal aspect of performing together. We can pretty much look at each other and know exactly what the other person is thinking, every time. Phill and Jonathan came together in 2010 after a recommendation from a mutual friend. Phill had already worked on Jonathan’s music and surprised him at the audition by knowing the material really well. I joined the band a year later after I sent Jonathan an e-mail wanting to help him out on guitar. At the time, he already had a guitarist but needed a bassist. At first, I didn’t want to have to make the switch, but to make a long story short, I ended up selling all my guitar gear and started devoting my life to bass. I auditioned for the band on a $60 Ibanez bass and a Roland guitar amp!!  

WRH: You managed to get a few renowned people to make guest appearances – such as Howard Levy on “Lurkin’” and Victor Wooten on “Life After D.” How did those collaborations happen? And what was it like to record with these folks?

JS: These collaborations come with yeeeaaars of back-story that would take up a whole blog by itself. But basically Bela Fleck introduced me to Howard Levy after one of their shows in Knoxville, TN (already that’s a crazy story! It was humbling for Bela to introduce me [to] Howard like a colleague).  That led the way for me to keep in touch with Howard … it also just so happened that I signed with a booking agency and Howard was on that same roster for one of his solo projects.  Working with Howard was amazing because he’s such a genius!  It was mind-blowing to me when he talked to me after doing his overdubs, saying how the piece challenged him! He was very supportive of me as a composer.  When it comes to Victor Wooten…I met him after a Flecktones show in 2004 that my then future wife took me to as a birthday gift.  I kept in touch over the years. I wanted to work with him on my past 2 albums, starting back in 2007, but he’s such a busy guy that it never worked out …I’m glad that he was able to take the time to be involved on this record…it’s a dream come true!  It was cool to be a fan in on moment and then talk logistics and business on the phone the next moment. I’m lucky.  

WRH: I think the major difference between this album and Character Farm is that the compositions such as “Contortionist Ballet” “Lurkin’"  have a mischievous, winking complexity, To me those two tracks sound as though they could be part of the soundtrack of an ensemble comedy like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. And yet, they’re both contain sustained moments of quiet beauty, underpinned by funk. "TFNJ” and “Life After D” are probably some of the funkiest things I’ve heard you guys do to date. You also have a gorgeous rendition of Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose.” “Turns Out” manages to bridge bop era jazz with fusion in a way that I doubt I’ve heard before. As disparate as the songs seem, they speak to each other and create a remarkably coherent whole.  Was it a conscious decision to make the new album sound as completely different as possible? Was it particularly difficult to write these compositions while having a pretty busy touring schedule?

JS:   Interesting observations! It was[n’t] really a conscious decision to make this album sound completely different …it was just more of a natural process.  We knew what we wanted to go for, despite what we’ve previously done.   Also, if you look back, it’s always been my style to have a stylistic spread on the album…that’s just my/our voice, I believe!  Even looking at the first album, we have “Desert” and “Pan Grass” (with bluegrass band accompaniment) on the same album. This album, to me, is the most cohesive, due to the consistency of the staff.  The trio had been touring for a couple years strong by the time we started tracking, which isn’t a scenario that existed going into the other albums. Also, we kept everything really consistent sonically from piece to piece working with the great engineer and friend Dan Shearin, which really helps to tie the sound of the album together, as a whole.

WRH: The Fourchestra has a sound that manages to be whimsical with an ethereal nature yet deceptively complex – all while being accessible and easily approachable. Despite it’s accessibility, it can be difficult for people to pin down.  During a couple of live sets, I’ve seen here in New York, you’ve jokingly commented on the fact that although you play steel pan, that what you’re playing isn’t the stereotypical steel pan music you’d hear people play.  Have you had many dealings with people who didn’t quite get what you were doing? And how do you deal with a live audience that may not be all that familiar with jazz or the pan drum as a jazz instrument?

JS: I deal with people who don’t quite get what we’re doing all the time.  And that’s ok! I’m fine knowing that it’s not going to be for everyone. Even popular stuff like Drake or Lady Gaga isn’t for everyone. There have been time[s] when people have come up after a show and said things like “You guys were great! Reminds me of my honeymoon when we saw the steel drum band in St. Croix!” I’m glad they enjoyed our show, but you can tell there’s something there that they aren’t getting.  But even with popular music…a fan will come up to Lady Gaga having enjoyed the show, but not have a clue about the songs’ writing process or even the real meaning of the lyrics, but it’s all good, because some people will get it and some people won’t.  When it comes to live audiences at this point, all we can do is be ourselves!  In theory, the promoter should have known what they got themselves into! But we definitely have the ability to skew our set, whether we are playing in a university classroom for music students or in a rock club …our ability to be a “chameleon” is how we deal with live audiences, no matter how much they know about what we do.   

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make it?

CW: Play what you truly love to play and listen to what you truly love to hear. Don’t let anyone tell you that your craft or your tastes are weird. By truly being yourself and staying true to what you love, you stand a much better chance of being unique as an artist yourself.