Steel Pannist Jonathan Scales Shares Stories Of Exploratory Duet Project ‘Scales & Friend’ (INTERVIEW)

Photo by Sandlin Gaither

What do you get when you put a steel pannist in a room with a saxophone player? Or with an accordion player? Or with a rapper, a hammered dulcimer player, a spoken word artist, or a darbuka player? In the case of Jonathan Scales’ video duet series, Scales & Friend, you get an exploration of a sonic world that you’ve not only never visited, but you’ve never imagined. You get 51 (and counting) duets. You get a rabbit hole.

The project started when singer Camille Harris encouraged Scales to work together with flutist Itai Kriss. Scales invited Kriss to his Brooklyn apartment, and set up an iPhone to video (because “with the internet, if there’s no video did it even happen?”) and recorded an improvisation – Scales on steel drums and Kriss on flute. 

The project started during the pandemic, when there were no live shows, but the series is continuing as the music world opens back up. We talked about the Scales & Friend series while his band, Jonathan Scales Fourchestra, was in the middle of a short southeast tour.

What happened after that session with Itai Kriss?

He left, and then I looked at it. And instantly I was like, “I think we have something here. What if I did this all the time with different people?” And that was the birth of it, actually. It was totally accidental. 

And then just to test it out, the second one was with E’lon (E’lon JD, bassist for the Fourchestra.) E’lon was in town. And I did the second one with him, just to say, “Okay, can I do this twice? And what would that look like if I had more than one of them?”

What are some of the instruments that you have performed with in this series?

It’s been a wide array of things. We’ve had an accordion player, a piano player, vocalists, rappers, hammered dulcimer. Guitarists, sousaphone, flute, saxophone, flugabone, which is a mix between a flugelhorn and a trombone. Cello, hand pans, talking drum. Violin. Trumpet. Yeah, it’s been a lot. Spoken word.

There have been a lot of limitations on everyone because of the pandemic, especially for people who make a living from performance, but are there ways that limitations push you to be even more creative?

I feel like being creative can be a very overwhelming process. Because there are limitless things that you can choose from to make anything. But then whenever you have the parameters, when you set the parameters for what a thing is, then all of a sudden it helps you be more creative and to work within that so that you’re not overwhelmed. Yeah, so like with this thing, I have my format. It’s one camera. It’s two people. It’s one song. I’m on stage right, they’re on stage left. I don’t have to think about that. We just have to work on the music, make it the best production that we can. 

Were the artists who you created the duets with people whose work you already knew, or were some of them new to you?

It’s a mix. With some people, they were friends of mine that I’ve already known. Some of them were friends of friends. So, for example, Samir LanGus from Morocco did one. And he instantly was like, oh, you’ve got to check out my friend from Morocco, Nizar (Dahmani), who plays the darbuka, which is like a hand drum. 

And, sometimes there are people that I’ve met just on the street, and there’s been a couple of instances where there are people I’ve never met, ever. Like, for example, the spoken word artist, Lyrical Faith Poetry. Before the pandemic, I saw her perform at Winter JazzFest. They had her doing a spoken word thing in between sets, and I just started following on Instagram.

Tell me about some of the more random ways that you met people that you did this with.

So, the accordion player (Ilya Shneyveys) I just met in the park. It was a nice day last year and there was an accordion player and a clarinet player playing klezmer in Prospect Park, which is across the street from my apartment.

Imani Coppola. I met her because I was an extra in her music video. She was shooting a music video in Brooklyn. And, two people, a guy named DR King and this trumpet player Kali Rodriguez. We were on the same private gig at this person’s mansion in Long Island. I connected with them there. And Anjali Rose. She was also an extra at the Imani Coppola music video. Another random one was Camille Harris. I met her because I was a voting member of the Grammys, and so was she. I connected with her just through the Grammy voting system. 

And Olivia K. When I first moved to New York, I met her. She was busking on the subway platform. I ran down the stairs and I heard her singing an Alicia Keys song. And I was like, “wow, this person is incredible.” It was my second week in New York. And I didn’t get to talk to her or anything. But I saw her name on a little placard.  And then I got onto the train. And then I just followed her on Instagram and stayed in touch. And she’s the only one who’s done two Scales & Friends, actually, at this point.

How do you and the other artists prepare for the recording?

What usually happens is, once they say they want to do one, I will either ask them, “Hey, what song do you want to do?” Or I will say, “Send me a list of a couple of ideas of songs that you want to do.” And I’ll pick one of those. I kind of curate it, figure out which one of those would best fit the format. And, also best fit me as a steel drum player. Because, usually, it’s music that they’re comfortable with, but it’s music that I have to learn. 

And then every now and then I’ll have an idea and I reach out and say, “Hey, can you do this particular song?” An example of that would be for my two-year, New York anniversary, I wanted to do the Alicia Keys song, “Empire State of Mind.” 

Then, at that point, sometimes I’ll have a day to prepare, sometimes I’ll have a couple hours to prepare. And I’ll work on it as best I can, before they come over. They come over, we work on it together, and get our arrangement down how we want it. And we do all that before we record. 

So, there are varying levels of that. Some of them are completely improvised. Some of them are easier. Some of them have taken weeks to prepare for, like the one I did with Mike Maz Maher, the trumpet player for Snarky Puppy. That one took a month to prepare, just those couple minutes of music, because he wrote his piece, especially for this thing, and it was also kind of challenging. We got together twice to record it. The first time that we went to record it, we thought that we could do it better. So, he actually came back again, maybe like two or three weeks later, to record it again. 

Which of them surprised you the most in how it turned out? Are there any that you were like, “I really didn’t expect it to be like this?”

The one with Lyrical Faith Poetry, the spoken word artist. The poem that she wrote, called “Black Poem,” was really powerful. And I was kind of improvising along with her doing her spoken word thing. I was also there as an audience member in a way because I was hearing this poem for the first time. And it was very powerful words that she was saying. So, it was kind of a unique experience to be moved by someone’s work in real-time with no audience. I’m glad that was captured.

What you were playing was almost a response to what she was saying. 

Yeah, I had a set chord progression, but the way I was responding to or playing along to what she was saying, was reacting, an improvised thing.

Number 15 with a cello player (Agustin Uriburu.) We wrote that piece right before we performed it. So I was surprised by how that turned out, because it turned out pretty well. And I think that that song is actually going to be a song on the new Fourchestra album. 

How did you connect with (Broadway performer) Jelani Remy?

I did a Scales & Friend video with this guy named DR King, who was a contestant on The Voice. We did a Justin Bieber song. And it was really cool. And DR King posted it and Jelani saw it. So, Jelani saw the posts from DR King. Jelani reached out to him, saying, “Hey, who’s this guy? Can I get his contact information?” So, Jelani reached out to me and said, “Hey, I saw a video of you on Instagram. And I’m doing a Caribbean-themed Christmas show. And you would be great to be the musical director for this event.” So that’s how I started working with Jelani.

Were there any other duets that led you to additional collaborations or work?

The one with the hammered dulcimer actually led to a private gig on the tarmac of JFK which was really cool. Actually, the one with the sousaphone player, that led to a private Christmas gig for a high-end cosmetic company. He recommended me to his neighbor, who was looking for music for this party. 

But the cool thing about it is, being in New York, a lot of it’s about networking, and because of the pandemic happening, things are functioning differently. And also, because my instrument isn’t the most mobile instrument, per se. It’s allowed me to network with people in the comfort of my own home. I could have someone over, make music with them and have no idea how that’s gonna come back to me. 

Obviously, you’ve never been limited by what people expect of the steel pan, and you’ve always had a lot of influences, and you explore the instrument in a lot of different ways. But do you feel that working with these different people and different instruments led you to explore your instrument in ways that you may not have in the past?

I don’t know if it helped me to explore my instrument in different ways. But it helped me to explore music. And a good example of that is the one that I did with Samir (LanGus) from Morocco. He came over and he tried to teach me the song. But because he’s from Morocco, coming from that culture, and I went to music school, the musical communication between the two of us in order to create that two-and-a-half-minute piece was really crazy. Because he couldn’t tell me “this is what we’re going to do, this how many times we’re going to do it, this is the cue, it’s this many measures.” And I’m so used to living in that world of, like, everything is like a box almost. It’s like a musical box where it’s, “Okay, it’s four measures. And then in the second measure this happens.” But with that music, it’s more like a circle. It’s actually more like an infinite loop where you’re following the circle around, and you just have to listen more. You can’t just rely on knowing “it’s four measures and then this happens.” So, it helped me to open my mind to how to even interact with people who aren’t from the western classical system.

You didn’t have a musical vocabulary in common.

Yeah, so music itself, obviously, is the common thread. But in terms of how to go about creating the music, you know, I’d ask him, “So, how many times do we repeat that part?” And he’d say, “I don’t know. Just listen to this, and when you hear this…” So, it really was like being on the edge. Like creating something in the moment, having to really listen to each other. And, you know, if you listen to that piece it’s really simple. But it kicked my ass, you know? It took hours for me to learn that, even though it’s really simple, it’s not technically advanced. But it’s so different from what I was used to. 

With some of the duets, I felt like they meshed really, really well. And I was thinking, what makes that happen?  Those are the ones that I think I responded to the most. It felt like it was just one thing happening.  

Like we’re a unit working together. As one instrument almost.

Yeah. How does that happen? That’s something I want to understand better.

Man, that’s actually a really deep question. I don’t know how to answer it.

I don’t know how to ask it.

All right, so the hammered dulcimer one is a good example of how we really linked up together. And I just feel like there is something that’s inexplicable about musicians working together, to be able to create something at the moment like that, that really gels. And part of it is your musical background, and part of it is what music you both have been exposed to. Part of it is both people’s ability to listen to each other while they’re playing their part. 

And being able to incorporate what the other person’s doing to be able to have a musical conversation. Because at the end of the day, people playing music together is a conversation. You know, it’s a form of communication. It always is. That’s what music has always been. 

So, whenever that happens, it’s almost kind of like a good conversation. Do you know what I mean? And especially when it’s two people. So even more so, it’s like a real musical conversation. And just like any time you put two people together, some conversations are gonna be deeper than others, some conversations are gonna be funnier, some conversations are gonna be like, well, that was interesting. You’re going to have that full range of connectivity, just like you would if two people were talking together.

What’s been the most challenging part of the project?

One of the challenges is because I’m a one-man team, there are so many aspects of it that make it to where it really is a whole project for me. First and foremost being, because this is my apartment, I have to keep it meticulously clean. Before I can even get into learning the song I have to do that. 

And it’s always a piece that I just learned, and it’s always a piece that the person knows very well. So, it’s difficult for me that I have to do the lights, I have to do the miking. If there are any technical difficulties, like, why am I not getting signal in this microphone, I’m doing engineering stuff. I am hosting them, making sure they have water, making sure they feel okay. So often when it’s time to start recording, I have to switch back into performer mode. At that point, we have to do several takes, usually, for me to get back into the mode of, now I’m performing. And then when they leave, I have to mix it, I do the video editing. One day I’d like to have some sort of small team to where I can just think about the music. To me, that’s the most challenging part now. 

What makes this project important to you?

Very quickly, I became obsessed with this project. And it became, seriously, like a passion project, with every definition of what a passion project is. Something that you obsess over, doesn’t necessarily bring you a lot of money at the beginning. But I really believe in it, to the point where I just spent so much time whenever I do any one of these videos. More effort goes into it than people realize. And I love it. I’m obsessed with it. And I really believe that it’s going to be something that I can’t even imagine. 

But, of course, people always made the comparison with Tiny Desk. Even from the very beginning, people made a comparison, like “this is like your own Tiny Desk.” And, of course, that’s a cool comparison. But I wanted it to be my own thing that’s different. But I definitely want it to grow to a point where people can expect amazing musicians to continue to come through, because of the way that this project is set up, there’s no cap to it, there’s no end. There are always going to be musicians coming through. I just want to keep continuing to build it. And I just believe that it’s going to be something noteworthy. 

Check out the whole Scales & Friend video playlist.

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