How do you tell a story or express an emotion without using words? That’s the challenge that composers of instrumental music face. I talked to steel pan jazz artist and composer Jonathan Scales about Lurkin’, which appears on the 2013 album “Jonathan Scales Fourchestra.”
Of this album, Modern Drummer says, “Inventive steel pan player Jonathan Scales delivers a disc that’s dazzling, shaded with surprising sonorities, chock-full of unexpected twists, and loads of fun. In a blink, tunes overlap jazz, funk, fusion, Latin, and even classical, frequently with mischievous humor. Scales’ crafty soloing takes his island-born instrument to a new zone.”
Lurkin’, more so than many instrumental songs, was inspired by a particular real-life situation. You can hear Jonathan briefly tell the story, and then listen to the Fourchestra perform the song, in this video.
The song is a tribute to Béla Fleck, the innovative banjo player who has won over a dozen Grammy awards, and has been nominated in more musical categories than anyone in Grammy history.
I ask Jonathan to talk about why and how he wrote Lurkin’ as a tribute to Béla Fleck.
“I’m a really big fan of Béla Fleck, a banjo player who does a lot of innovative things with the banjo. People kind of know him for taking the banjo out of its normal context and doing something a little different with it. And so it’s not that I was necessarily inspired by him to take the steel drum out of its normal context but it was like an affirmation that this is acceptable.”
The story of this song goes back a few years.
“Any time that he was in the area with any project that he had I’d always show up early to the shows. And he got to know me from me showing up all the time. And there was one little period in there where I was showing up three or four hours early. Maybe five hours early. Or even six. And he’d see me coming and he’d point at me and say ‘Lurking’ and then he’d just go the other way. So that happened a decent amount of times, enough for me to get slightly annoyed because I came all the way just to try to talk to him. And he’d see me walking up, hanging out by the bus, like a creepy stalker or something, and he’d just say ‘Lurking.’
“So I decided to go home and write a piece in the style of Béla Fleck, in honor of Béla Fleck. “
There’s another connection to Béla Fleck in the song. The album version features Howard Levy, one of the founding members of The Flecktones, Béla’s band, playing harmonica and piano. I’m curious about what brought Howard Levy to record with the Fourchestra.
Jonathan tells me that he first met Levy after a show in Knoxville. The evening started out with the familiar “Lurking” comment from Béla before the concert, which made Jonathan tempted to just go home after the show and not try to talk to the band.
“I’m not gonna go over there, I’m not gonna be that guy,” Jonathan recalls thinking. “I’m gonna go home.”
But then he saw the band hanging around on the stage, talking and signing autographs. “And they’re my favorite band in the world. So it was like, you know what? I’m gonna swallow my pride and I’m gonna go up there.”
A conversation with Levy that night led to a correspondence that eventually led to Levy playing on Lurkin’.
How does one write a song in the style of a banjo player, but for the steel drum?
“On that song I play the steel drums as if it were a banjo,” Jonathan explains. “So kind of like the rolling, frolicking job that the banjo has in a lot of bluegrass songs, I try to mimic that in certain sections. But then also doing a little quirky thing with it…I go to the “flat 6th” of the major chord. You’re not gonna hear that in bluegrass. But Béla would definitely do that. Stuff like that.
“And then also in the style of Béla, I switch to another section. There’s an A section and a B section. The A section is very bluegrass but with a little tinge of something else to it, like Béla would do. And then the B section was something that was kind of abstract and a little obtuse that would not be something you would hear on the banjo, but he would do it anyway. And then he would take these two styles and kind of mix them together. And so the second section of Lurkin’ kind of has that obtuse, angular, metrically complicated thing going on.”
These “quirky” elements, the unexpected chords, the combination of the two very different styles, play a part in painting a sonic picture of “lurking.” The overall sound of the song is tense, with an almost frenetic sense of motion. But a little before the three-minute mark in the album version of the song, the pace slows down dramatically, and then suddenly picks up, even quicker than before. It sounds like a chase.
Jonathan says, “I think the lurking connection with the part where it slows down and speeds up, I think that’s actually coincidental. It goes so well with it. In hindsight, that works very well with the title and the whole story. But I think originally it was just a compositional idea.”
“Just to make things interesting?” I ask.
“Just to make things interesting and switch things up,” he says. “Just to try to incorporate different things. But there’s all kinds of things about the actual mechanics of the music. For example, the part that’s the B section, I actually wrote that on an out of tune guitar, just messing around. I had a guitar with strings that were not how you’d set up a guitar, and I just had this pattern, and I was messing around, moving it around. That was actually the first part I wrote, even before I had the idea to write Lurkin’. That was a fragment of a motif that I had saved in the back of my head. So a lot of these things come together between having that idea, which was kind of a random idea that I had with an out of tune guitar.”
At the very end, all the instruments fade out and then stop and we hear just two chords alternating back and forth on the steel pan. It’s an unusual way to end a song. I ask him why he chose to end the song that way.
“So that brings up a couple interesting points actually,” he says. “One thing I want to point out is during the bass solo, if you listen to the chords, and this is one of those music nerd things, it goes from D major to B flat major. So it has this quirky sound to it but it’s relatively happy. Right at the end of the bass solo, where the bass solo stops, and where those ending chords start, there’s a clash. It happens right there. And this is like music nerd central. But it’s completely important to the whole vibe of a song. There’s a clash right there, to where that first chord becomes a B flat augmented chord, which is a very strange chord. The chords become B flat augmented, to B diminished 7 and it goes back and forth between those two. So now you have these two strange, dark kind of chords that don’t really normally go together.”
Those “two strange, dark chords,” put next to each other, produce an ominous sound. The center of each chord is the same note, a D. The two chords hover around the same center, widening and narrowing just a tiny bit as they alternate. But you don’t have to be a music nerd or even know a thing about music theory to feel the sense of uneasiness as the song ends.
“So that’s the tension?” I ask.
“That’s the tension. And it kind of, like, rides out on that on that tension. Everything fades out and it adds to the element of this creepy type (of lurker.)”
I agree. “If you’re listening and you’re this sort of person, you’re always gonna impose some kind of meaning or story to it, but what I hear at the end is that everyone else leaves and there you are being creepy.”
Jonathan says, “That makes a lot of sense. A couple things with that. I think that may have actually been Cody’s idea (Cody Wright, bassist) to have everyone fade out except for me. On the album it’s me, and Howard on the piano, lingering at the end. Which to me as a fan is really cool.
“That works very well with the narrative. And sometimes those things, like I said, kind of happen. Like it was Cody’s idea to have everyone fade out. So I kept going at the same volume with the strange chords that I came up with. Everyone fades out and it kind of rides out. Another thing that’s really interesting about it is it’s very unsettling. Cause a lot of songs end in a predictable way to where, you know it’s the end. Bam. Lurkin’ kind of ends in an unsettled way.”
“You don’t know when the last chord’s gonna be,” I say, “because it doesn’t sound like a final chord, with a major chord, or however you might normally resolve things.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t resolve at all,” Jonathan says. “So I think that kind of leaves things like they were at that time. Things were unresolved.”
Which leads to a big question. How are things now? Still unresolved?
The answer: Jonathan no longer has to lurk around Béla Fleck. When he tweeted the video of the song, he tagged Béla, and also emailed it to him. Béla tweeted back his admiration for the song.
“I felt very honored by that, and it was a really cool thing for him to publically say that on social media. So that was a life-changer for me just because he’s such a big influence for me and I’ve spent these years driving early to his concerts to see him and then finally to have this validation.”
That was in 2013. In October of 2014, Jonathan recorded a cover on steel drums of an excerpt of an extremely challenging piece by Béla Fleck, “The Imposter” Concerto for Banjo and Symphony Orchestra.
“Last time I saw him was less than a week after that video came out of me playing his banjo concerto and instantly it was like the game had changed, because I think that he appreciates what I’m doing…I got to spend about five hours with him.”
Over the last year the idea that someday he might do a project with Béla Fleck started to seem like less of a pipe dream. On April 1st, at 11:53 p.m. he posted an April Fool’s joke on Facebook, saying that he was going on a European tour with Béla in 2015. He quickly fessed up that it was a joke, but his confession wasn’t noticed. When he woke up the next morning, the post had garnered around 600 “likes.” He deleted the post but had to reply to all the messages of congratulations that he was receiving, explaining that it was just a joke. He had to explain the concept of April Fool’s Day to a fan in India.
Clearly the idea of a joint project with his musical hero seemed very much in the realm of possibility to Jonathan’s fans.
I ask him if he thinks there will be a project.
“There’s nothing official, but I know from talking to him personally, that one day when the time is right it will happen. I have no doubt that will happen,” he says. “Because he said it.”
One Track Mind is a new column by Glide writer Jody Mace in which she’ll conduct interviews with songwriters about just one song, while exploring the inspiration, challenges and evolution of that one song.