When viewed from afar, it was not entirely clear what Jonathan Scales was doing. He wielded two short sticks—which looked exactly like a pair of nunchuks, disconnected—and did a stirring motion, dipping them into two gleaming metal bowls. And there he was: poking and prodding, whipping and brushing. The bowls were angled towards him and one couldn’t see their interiors. The only certainty was that, when Scales stirred his magic cauldrons, with motions that appeared all but frictionless, out came music.
Most of the audience at his performance last Saturday probably hadn’t seen a steel pan played as an instrument before. Scales, appearing with bassist Jay White and Xavier Breaker on drums (there’s no fourth person), was more than happy to fix that. Originally an instrument from Trinidad closely tied to the history of slaves, the steel pan has—with the help of fusion artists like Scales—become part of mainstream repertoire, for classical, contemporary, and experimental genres. The Fourchestra’s forte was jazz.
As fusion jazz goes this was pretty accessible stuff: one of the biggest crowd-pleasers was “We Came Through The Storm,” which, as Scales explained, had its roots in his younger days of wanting to compose for film. The song’s a romp, and almost cartoonish in its sly bass lines and bouncy melody. But underneath the whimsy, one could sense Scales’s seriousness. The steel pan was known as a slight instrument, more suitable for “islander” fare and adding a dash of (ill-defined) “latin”; even if he didn’t have a chip on his shoulder, Scales was clearly aiming for something with greater weight.
His experimental, conceptual bent came into focus with “Mind Your Threes and Twos,” a rhythmically complex piece. Just in case the audience didn’t notice the crazy time signatures, Scales paused in the middle of the performance to invite the crowd to help keep time: “count seven times seven, and then two sixes twice as fast.” But it was more fun for him than for anyone else. When Scales tried to get abstract, the premise was usually more interesting than the outcome.
To nobody’s surprise, the true, beating heart of the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra was ultimately the steel pan. There was a bravura solo where Scales, the master conjurer, gave a full palette of tone colours that was at times glowing, luminous, dreamlike. Was it jazz? It’s debateable. But it was definitely quite something. After the solo, Scales introduced the instrument, and the crowd collectively aah-ed when he turned it around:
The inside of the steel pan was, of course, empty.
The Jonathan Scales Fourchestra performed at the Grand Hall of the Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre at HKU on Saturday, which also included “Kiss From a Rose" and the excellent encore number, “Desert.”
(This performance was part of their Asia tour, sponsored by the American Music Abroad program. In the name of diplomatic outreach, the band played a cover of Eason Chan’s 幸福摩天輪, “Missing You.” Well, that one didn’t quite pan out... but it’s the thought that counts.)