Jonathan Scales: Panning for Jazz

Scales forges new improvisational territory with steel pans

If you’ve spent even a little time navigating New York’s MTA system, then you’ve likely seen steel-pan drummers on subway platforms entertaining listeners with spirited interpretations of pop tunes. Pans are much less common in jazz, but a few performers have made them their main instrument, including Andy Narell, Victor Provost, and a relative newcomer named Jonathan Scales.

Among the most innovative steel-pan players in any style, Scales recently released the album PILLAR with his Fourchestra, featuring a selection of equally original guests, like banjoist Béla Fleck and bassist Victor Wooten. “Though I play jazz on the steel pan, it’s a folk instrument at heart—an instrument of the people,” Scales says.

For many listeners, the steel pans, which originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 1800s, instantly conjure up the folk sounds of the Caribbean. Historically, they were repurposed from oil barrels, but modern versions are custom-made from sheet metal, hammered into specific pitches and timbres. The late Ellie Manette, who died last August at 90, is generally regarded as the father of the modern steel drum, having pioneered a version that could play all 12 tones of the chromatic scale.

There’s a variety of different steel pans, from the highest-pitched (the single tenor or lead pan) to the lowest (the 12 bass). Scales’ instrument of preference, the double second—as the name suggests, not one drum but a pair, with a three-octave range—is, he explains, “basically the alto voice.”

Scales, 34, came somewhat late to the pans. Originally a saxophonist, he didn’t switch instruments until after enrolling as a freshman at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., in 2002. “I was intrigued but nervous to try out for the [steel-pan] ensemble, because I didn’t want to fail,” he says. “But since I’d had some drum-line experience in high school, I went for it—and it worked.”

Learning basic pan technique proved not to be particularly formidable for Scales, but becoming a jazz improviser on the instrument was another story. “The layout is just so different than on other instruments,” he says. “If you’re playing guitar, there might be some cool shapes you can come up with and move around pretty easily. But on the double second, every key’s a completely different shape.”

One might suspect that playing the steel pans like Scales does—often simultaneously soloing and comping with two mallets—requires at least some limb independence. But he doesn’t see it that way. “It’s more a mental thing—my brain processing two parts at the same time—rather than my hands working independently,” he says.

Intonation is tricky at the best of times on steel pans; if the instrument’s mishandled, it can easily be compromised. Luckily, Scales will often encounter a steel-pan tuner on the road—his favorite technician, Steve Lawrie of Ohio, travels frequently and gives Scales’ instrument regular touchups between full tunings. But occasionally there are mishaps. “One time on the road, something accidentally bumped into my A-flat—it wasn’t obvious until the middle of the show, when I noticed something was very wrong. But over the phone, Steve was able to walk me through correcting the note to where it was relatively playable for another week or so.”

Because of its dissimilarity to other instruments—and its infrequent use in jazz—there are few conventions regarding steel-pan improvising. Still, it’s surprising that Scales’ biggest benchmark isn’t, say, one of the vibraphone greats but Béla Fleck, whose work he first encountered on a tour bus in college.

“The guy sitting behind me put some headphones on me and it was Béla playing,” Scales says. “I was immediately hooked and have always liked the connectivity of the notes in his banjo playing. And, all these years later, it’s been thrilling to work with this musician who’s been such a dominant influence—and call him a friend.”

Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter is a contributing music editor for Acoustic Guitar magazine and other Stringletter Media publications, as well as a freelance music transcriber and engraver. He has a master’s degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory of Music.