On PILLAR composer and steel pannist Jonathan Scales mines his emotional landscape to create eight songs that are as honest and evocative as they are intricate and complex. With his band, the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra (consisting of himself, bass player E’lon Jordan-Dunlap, and drummer Maison Guidry), along with a host of stellar guest artists including Béla Fleck, Oteil Burbridge, Victor Wooten, Jeff Coffin, Weedie Braimah, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Shaun Martin and MonoNeon, Scales creates music that will please serious jazz fusion aficionados, but that is also packed with ear-wormy melodies and infectious rhythms that keep it accessible for everyone else.
The first time I met Jonathan Scales was in 2014 when I interviewed him for Glide Magazine. He talked about his song “Lurkin’”, which was a tribute to, and written in the style of, his musical hero, innovative banjo player, Béla Fleck. Since then I’ve followed his career closely, even hosting a couple of house shows for him over the years.
The quality of his music that first got my attention, and what we talked about in the first interview, was his ability to tell stories and express emotions through instrumental music. On PILLAR this quality is even more pronounced. There are a lot of good ways to listen to music, but for this album one especially good way is to let the name of each song serve as a story-starter and then see where your imagination leads you as you listen.
We took a deep dive into most of the songs on PILLAR. He talked about the back-story of some of the songs, his techniques, and, as a self-professed music nerd, some of the unusual ways that he composed and arranged the music.
How to Rebuild Your Battleship
This is a song that seems to have a narrative. Did you have a story before you started, or is that something that happened along the way? How does a song get hooked to a story?
It starts as a concept for me. So, for “How to Rebuild Your Battleship,” the concept behind that was for a couple years in the life of the Fourchestra I didn’t have set lineup. So, from 2016, for maybe like a year and 8 months, I had a rotating cast of guys. It was cool to work with all these people, but it was also really hard to keep up with everything. And every time I went out on tour it felt kind of like I was going into battle, almost. And at the end of those tours, everyone would fly home to their respective places and I’d be driving home by myself.
It was a time of reflection for me because I felt like, we’ve done all this work, and now, coming home at the end of these tours, I would feel worn down, and kind of banged up a little. Just from night after night of playing and traveling, and teaching people new music, and making sure of the flight, selling merch, and making sure everyone knew what was going on at all times. I would be driving home, usually in the middle of the night, worn down and exhausted, but in my head, I knew that I had to go on the next tour, which was probably like a week away or something. We had all these runs lined up, so I knew I’d have to come home and prepare myself for the next one. I couldn’t give up.
So, “How to Rebuild Your Battleship” is the concept of going out into war with your ship, you lose some men, you get a big hole on the side of the ship, you have a leak, you have to fix this, you lost this part of the ship, you’ve got to repair the gun, and all these things. And so, you come home with bandages on your head and everything, but that same ship and that same crew has to go back into battle again.
Or maybe not even the same crew, right?
Or maybe not even the same crew. But the ship has to go out again. And the leader of the ship. I have to go back out there again. Whenever I end a tour, and I’m heading home, usually through the night, I always envision that scene at the end of the battle, in a movie, where all the soldiers are headed home, with bandages on their heads, their armor’s all torn to bits, and they’re bleeding, someone’s missing an arm, someone’s got an eye patch, and there’s this big orchestral music playing in the background, and they’re heading home. That’s the vision I get for myself, after the tour, because it takes so much out of me.
We Came Through the Storm
“We Came Through the Storm” places the listener in the middle of a storm that grows in intensity and tension, accelerating, twisting and turning in ways that seem unpredictable. The last two minutes ratchet up the tension with an extended drum solo punctuated with blasts of horns and strings, and then the introduction of a low, ominous growl. Against the backdrop of this swirling, chaotic maelstrom, Scales repeats a simple, regularly spaced phrase on the steel pans, again and again, just like someone putting one foot in front of the other to push through the rain and wind.
How did you create the tension in this song?
I wanted to create a feeling of a whirlwind, when the tornado starts to take shape and takes form, and it starts to pick up debris, and starts to spin around faster. I wanted to create that kind of vibe. So, I knew it couldn’t just be in 4/4. I also didn’t want to impose my own time signature on that because if there’s an actual storm you don’t really have any control over what happens.
I knew the chord progression already. I figured out these 8 chords that would harmonically create that effect. But then, for the amount that you would hold each chord, I didn’t want to come up with those numbers. I couldn’t impose my own will on how long each of those chords was going to be held. So, I got a random number generator from the internet and I put the limit to 8, I believe, and I hit it once, and the first number was 5, I think. I hit it again, second number, without even thinking, and I got all these numbers. I already have the chords assigned to them, and that was the progression. So, I have the progression, and now I have the meters of the progression.
And then I had two options. For my part I could kind of improvise, or I could have a solid part. And I wrote a solid part that was 8 measures, that repeats, with the speeding up.
What was that growling sound toward the end?
OK, so, I’m revealing all the secrets today. So, that is a combination of a lot of instruments. It’s like an orchestra. That low growl is the combination of an upright bass–the lowest string of an upright bass, tuned down a half step, actually. A contra bass clarinet, which is this monstrous monstrosity of an instrument. Bari sax, tuba, trombone and cello. They all recorded it separately. I brought them in one by one.
And also, the funny thing about that is the framework started off with just a drum solo. And then I arranged all the stuff around the drum solo. So, when Maison was playing everything he played, he didn’t know that I was going to do that. Honestly, I didn’t know I was going to do that. When we first went to the studio it was really just Maison, E’lon and myself. That’s it. And when we got out of the studio that’s when I used that as a framework to create the rest of it. If you listen closely you can hear where the drums line up with the horns and line up with the strings. And most people would think that the arrangement came first and the drum solo is lining up with the arrangement, but it’s actually the other way around. That’s the secret.
Your music is so visual for me. You’ve got a concept, but how do you express it to the band so that they’re all contributing to that concept?
It’s kind of complicated because music can be so interpretive. I get it across to my players by actually telling them how I feel about it. Like, for example, the song “Cry.” We can play it all day long and people can interpret it all different ways. There’s a million ways you can interpret it, but if I say, “Hey, you guys, this is the meaning behind the song. This is the feeling behind it. I’ve been through a lot of stuff, a divorce, and the insanity of a crazy new relationship, and not knowing how to handle it, and moving from different house to different house. Having different people in and out of the band, feeling like I have a band but I’m the only one in it, there’s no solid members for a while. I was going through a lot, so that song’s a really heavy song for me.”
So, I’ll explain that to them, because maybe they feel it in a different way. Like, the drum part is really active on that. It’s this current of rhythm. And for example, sometimes a player, they might just be so caught up in their part, this current of rhythm, that they just have fun with it, they take it in a whole other direction, but that might be not what I’m looking for. Because I still want this gravity with this song that’s not necessarily playful and not necessarily light. So, with my players, it’s not just the music on the page. A lot of times I’m talking to them, like, “this is what I was thinking when I wrote this, this is what I was feeling when I wrote this, and you need to think about that whenever you’re playing your part, whenever we’re on stage.”
Is it hard to express a lot of emotions on steel drums? It seems like, as an instrument, it doesn’t have as many dynamic tools as some other instruments.
Here’s how I can answer that. I don’t really know. With the violin there’s certain dynamic things you can do. There’s sustain, you can hold a note for longer. With steel pans there’s definitely limitations. You can roll, you can kind of do these grace notes, where you’re able to imply other pitches while you’re playing a main pitch. But in terms of expression that’s one of those things I haven’t really figured out yet. I haven’t figured out how to put my finger on that yet.
I would say that there’s two answers. There’s compositionally and there’s improvising. When it comes to improvising I feel like there’s a connection between your feelings and your ability as a performer that find balance within each other. Even if you have just a little bit of ability you can still express yourself if your emotions are connected with your facility. And if you have a lot of facility in your instrument it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not connected with the emotion.
As a composer I would say that the way that you manipulate chords and melodies together, along with the rhythm, it kind of has its power of tension and release. And so, just playing around with different chords and how to resolve different chords or how to not resolve different chords. I’ll give you an example. On the song “Cry,” the way that builds emotionally. I keep my melody the same. If you notice, the steel pan part on “Cry” is the same for four minutes. That doesn’t change. But it’s a long melody. It’s a through composed melody, which basically means that when you first hear it you can’t initially tell where’s the beginning and the end of the melody. As opposed to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” That’s a really basic melody. You hear the melody, and when it repeats again you’re like, oh, there it is.
But in a through-composed melody there’s so many parts to the melody. This is a 32-bar melody. So, I have this melody that stays consistent, but in the rhythm section I have the whole band just build, every single time it repeats. Every single time those 32 bars repeat, the band builds in intensity. I add instruments and I add thicker textures. Adding violins, or the keyboard soloist, or adding a cello, or having the bass be more active, or having the drums be even more active. It builds up in volume, it builds up in the thickness of the texture, what people are playing. And all together, it creates an effect, in the same way that a chef will add different spices or add different ingredients to give someone a certain feeling.
“The Trap” features two guest bassists, Victor Wooten and MonoNeon, as well as percussionist Weedie Braimah and trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah.
You recorded “The Trap” a long time ago but this version has a lot more energy and intensity. Why did you decide to record it again?
A couple of years after I graduated I was actually commissioned to write this piece based off of those first 8 notes. It was this project going on at this really progressive church in Asheville.
That melody sounds like church bells.
Exactly. So, there was this progressive church in Asheville called Jubilee! Jubilee! had this program and they commissioned these four bands to write a piece of music based on those eight notes. And they put the audience in the middle. And the first band plays the first 8 notes and then they go into their tune. And then it switches over to the next band and then the next band. I was commissioned to write this piece. And I thought I was going to get paid. I was excited about it. I was looking forward to it. And then I found out I wasn’t getting paid. And then it was like a volunteer type thing. Then I kind of drug my feet and procrastinated until the very last minute. I felt like I was trapped in the situation of writing this piece.
So (the night before the church event) in the middle of a gig at a restaurant called The Lobster Trap, on the set break, I wrote “The Trap” on a napkin, in like five minutes. I was angry and frustrated and I really didn’t care, and I just kind of jotted it down. It took me like five minutes to write this. And then we played it on the second set. It wasn’t the best. We played it at the church event the next day and we got this huge standing ovation, which I did not expect. To me, that was a throwaway piece that I was just going to play for that day and never play it again. So, it worked out really well.
At that point I decided to put it on my album, “Character Farm,” because we were on the tail end of recording it. When we recorded it, the track had just been written maybe a week, maybe two weeks before. So, it didn’t have any kind of road testing. And that was in 2011. So, 7 years later, “The Trap” has been played a lot, by a lot of people, and things kind of evolved over time. I never expected it to get that far but it’s one of our most popular tunes. People who I never met in my life come to me, and say they like “The Trap.”
So, part of it is that it’s grown so much that I wanted to re-record it. But I’m not ashamed to say there’s the business part of it too. It’s not on any recent album, and people want to hear it, so let’s just record it again and make a better version of it, a more up-to-date version. That way I can hand them something I’m really proud of, especially because that first version of “The Trap” was recorded at the very beginning, when the song was born, so it hadn’t grown yet.
Béla Fleck plays banjo on this song, making it, in a way, the end of the story that “Lurkin’”, which we discussed in the first interview, started. “Lurkin’” was about how early in his career Scales would show up any time Fleck played anywhere within driving distance, and would “lurk” around, trying to talk to him. Fast forward a few years and Béla Fleck is playing on Jonathan Scales’ album.
So, what was it like recording with Béla? Was it surreal?
There are different layers to it. On the first layer it’s like “this is absolutely insane.” On one side it was really surreal, because obviously, he’s a big influence on me. He’s probably my biggest influence, and it was definitely just like a dream to be there, and him wanting to play the role of making my music come to life. He was very invested in making sure it was correct. He could have come in like a diva and been like “Hey, you know, I’m Béla Fleck, that’s good enough.” But no, he came in and he would play a part over and over until he got it correct, and he would say “Hey, what do you think about this?” He’d put in his input. And if was something I wanted him to do, but it didn’t work well, he would offer different advice that would be amazing. He stayed in the studio with us for maybe six hours. Just tweaking it and making sure everything was right, and making sure that I was happy. So that was a big deal.
So, there’s that part. I was totally just blown away, very surreal. The other layer of it, which is the professional part, is that for some reason I’m able to put on that hat, be that guy. It was easy for me to be in the studio and say “Béla that’s the wrong note. It actually goes like this.” That’s something I had to develop over the years, just from working with so many people. I can’t be the fan boy, I have to work, I have to be there and make sure it’s right. I can’t just say “Oh cool, it’s Béla Fleck, that sounds great.” I have to be like, “Yeah, I think this one’s better than this one.” Or “Actually, I don’t know about that idea.” So that was the other layer of it.
And then the other layer of it is the personal side. Everything that was going on in my life during that exact time. In terms of my personal life, things were really insane right then. So, there were moments in there where it didn’t even matter that I’m having this time with my biggest hero in the world, because I had so many personal things going on that were super heavy. There were times when even that same day, or the next day, I had feelings of “What does this even matter?” To put it in perspective, if it were to have happened five years earlier I would have been so hyped about it for years, you couldn’t stop me from smiling. But I was going through so many heavy things in my life, that even the day after recording Béla Fleck, I was still going through some depression and dealing with a lot of personal issues.
But in a lot of ways it made it really real. I wasn’t shying away from that, because that’s how this album was made, really. Because of the stuff I was going through, and taking that stuff and translating it into actual music. Or just going through situations and going, you know, I want to write a song that is inspired from this feeling or that feeling. A lot of the album comes from that, so I can’t even look back and wish that things were different.
This is the Last Hurrah!
The main melody in “This is the Last Hurrah!” (played by Jeff Coffin on soprano sax) sounds like a child mocking another child. Is that what you intended?
For sure. It’s definitely that kind of vibe, the nanny-nanny-boo-boo. It kind of pulls from that. That tune is just kind of a playful, joyous kind of thing, based off of my obsession with Béla Fleck. The reason why it’s called “This is the Last Hurrah!” is because, you know, I had written “Lurkin’” for Béla, I had learned all these other tunes (of Béla Fleck’s), but “This is the Last Hurrah!” is me saying, “All right, you know what, I’m going to stop writing songs for Béla.” And originally, I wrote that song with the intention of having Béla Fleck play on it. It’s very Flecktones-esque.
And there’s even one little line in there that I stole directly from Béla. There’s this one part where, during the melody, everyone cuts out and you hear the steel pan play this melody. 8 notes, or 12?
The melody you play right before the melody I was talking about?
Yes. It leads into that. Those notes came directly from Béla Fleck’s first concerto. Except he’s playing it really fast, in the midst of like a thousand notes. No one would ever figure that out. He might not even figure it out. But in the midst of this thousand-note run, where he’s going crazy, he plays however many notes those are.
And that part at the very end of the melody, I actually wrote that part at your house. The very, very first time I was at your house for the house show. It was one of those things where I was at sound check in your living room and that little part just came to me, so it was detached. The other part hadn’t been written yet. So, whenever I went to write the song I knew I had that little chunk and I had the idea that I wanted to steal from Béla and then I had some little chunks of little ideas and I put it together. That’s how the melody wraps up. But that’s what was written first, and it was written at your house.
Originally, I wanted Jeff Coffin to play on “Focus Poem” and I wanted Béla Fleck to play this one, because I was so caught up in that I wrote this for Béla, but I had to kind of remove myself from that and make what the best decision was, and I think that the best decision was made at the end of the day.
Was there any song that surprised you in how it turned out?
Remember how I said that this album comes from such a crazy place in my life? You might say that what that tune represents is a day where I’m definitely in the midst of crazy divorce stuff, crazy new relationship stuff, crazy life stuff, in between houses, but for some reason I was so happy that day. I was so happy. I probably had coffee that morning. I started singing that melody and I recorded it onto my phone, just to say “Ok, I’m gonna write a tune that’s kind of like this.” So, months and months later when I went to actually write it, I tried to come up with something that was based off of it, and I couldn’t, so I ended up transcribing my own voice.
So, if you listen to the melody, the first time through the melody, the second time through the melody, that’s inspired by the style I wanted, but the third part and the fourth part of the melody are direct transcriptions of my voice memo.
If you were going to break down what’s happening melodically you will see that there are notes that are technically wrong notes for the key. So, I changed the chords underneath to fit my butchered singing. And then I put the harmony to it and I added the rhythm to it and added the orchestration and the horns and the strings. I had to beef it up. But that turned out better than I thought it would.
In the album notes you described this as an album 10 years in the making. What do you know now that you didn’t know 10 years ago that allowed you to make this album?
The first thing that comes to mind when you ask me that is, what I know now that I didn’t know then is that the pursuit of the career isn’t everything. Real life is important. Real life matters. After going through everything I went through, divorce-wise, my life situation changing rapidly, I feel like I have more of an appreciation for life outside of just pursuing the dream. Just the balance of life. Honestly, this album wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t gone through a bunch of shit. And you can’t go through a bunch of shit unless you put yourself out there into life.