Trust is more important than ever for the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra. “We drive each other around, and one person sleeps while the other drives,” Scales notes, smiling, “so we trust each other on all kinds of levels.”
That is crucial for a group that tours as much as the Fourchestra, but the trust that makes this band special is more the musical type. “This music’s kind of complicated,” says steel drummer and frontman Jon Scales, a huge fan of jazz fusion groups Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and Return To Forever. “It’s good to know that when I go for this 13/16 bar, everybody’s going to nail it. Its like gymnastics where one person has to catch someone else, or everyone has to work as a team to hoist someone.
“When there’s some crazy line that Cody and I have to play together, we each know the other’s going to play the part. You know that game where you fall backwards and you let everyone catch you? We trust each other musically as well.”
This version of the Fourchestra, featuring drummer Phill Bronson (Mars Hill College) and guitarist-turned-bassist Cody Wright (Warren Wilson), has been mixing it up for over two years. “It’s great to play with these guys,” Scales says. “Not only is it a front row seat, but I get to be onstage when Cody plays a great solo, and when Phill goes crazy on the drums.
“I’ve seen everyone become more comfortable navigating this territory. As instrumentalists it’s an exciting road. It can be tough to have a distinctive voice when the meter is changing every measure, and I’ve seen the guys grow in that way, get more solid with saying what they want to say in their voice over this challenging music. Before, there might be sections that they would have to count, and now they don’t count anymore. And they’re actually saying something over the music — I think that’s developed a lot in all of us. That comes with time and with touring. Touring gives us the opportunity to play the music every single day and to really get it under our fingers.”
And then there’s all that time in the van. “You drive 18 hours with three guys, get out and play a show, I don’t know what it is, some kind of magic that makes it all better somehow. The experience of being on the road and touring, in and of itself, excluding the stage, it all comes back around to helping the music,” Scales insists. “It somehow correlates to being able to communicate onstage, which is a mystery I’ve not been able to figure out yet.
A saxophone player in high school, Scales learned to play the steel pans at Appalachian State, where he majored in composition. “We’ve become better players together, and the band’s gotten tighter,” he says. “The deeper we get into it, people are taking every aspect of the whole thing a lot more seriously, and it’s just good all around.”
Expect things to only get busier for the Fourchestra — in May they inked a deal with Philadelphia-based Ropeadope Records, which plans to release the trio’s new album worldwide on July 9. “I approached Ropeadope a few months ago, and by the time they responded back we were done and into the pressing and everything,” Scales says. The label wants to release the album as is, he reports. “They’re very open to letting the artist
“It’s all about progressing,” Scales says. “A lot of people know Ropeadope, so I’m curious to see where that will take us.”
Jonathan Scales Fourchestra is Scales’ fourth album, one that he says contains more input from his bandmates. “There’s the core group, me and Cody and Phill, which I’m happy and pretty proud about — it’s got a solid foundation,” Scales says. “It’s fully orchestrated with horns and strings and extra percussion, this thick layer. It’s almost like a grandiose film score.”
And as usual for Scales, the guest list is eyecatching — Victor Wooten plays on “Life After D,” a shout out to the group’s former guitarist Duane Simpson. Howard Levy adds harmonica and piano on the Bela-inspired “Lurkin’.” “I kind of wrote it in the style of the Flecktones,” Scales explains, “kind of imagining, ‘What would Victor do?’
“As a bandleader who’s been doing this for awhile and been keeping up with these guys, it’s been cool to include them on our compositions and work with them. Howard Levy coming was such a treat, and he was really interested in what I was doing compositionally. It was cool to have Casey Driessen, the violin virtuoso, playing backup parts for the entire album. And of course working with Victor is a dream come true.”
“t.n.f.j.” was written around a funky, polyrhythmic Cody Wright bass line, and gives saxophonist Jacob Rodriguez a chance to blow. “I pretty much mirror what Cody plays,” Scales says. I’m playing the inverse, so my measure one is his measure two. The B section we have 4/4 ¾, 4/4 4/4, 4/4 5/4, 4/4 6/4. The first measure is always 4/4, and the second measure goes up each time, ¾, 4/4, 5/4, 6/4. There are these simple little tricks that I learned as a composer, but the secret is to play it in a way that’s natural, to where it doesn’t sound like mathematical music.”
The group even pulls off a rare cover — Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” — with cellist Franklin Keel and brass. “It struck a chord,” Scales recalls. “We started listening to it in the van. It’s kind of like this cool, epic piece, so we started playing it live. I feel like it meshes well with the vibe of the album, and hopefully our interpretation of it comes across. As a composer I always wanted to do film scoring, so writing those cello and horn parts was an opportunity to stretch those muscles. It was kind of a personal challenge also.”