Jonathan Scales Fourchestra at Englert Theatre showcases steel pan versatility

On Sep. 30, the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra performed at the Englert Theatre, showcasing the versatility of the steel pan instrument and crossing musical divides.


Gabby Drees

Jonathan Scales Fourchestra’s Maison Guidry performs during a concert at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Jonathan Scales Fourchestra is a jazz band led by Jonathan Scales playing steelpans.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

The Englert Theatre opened its doors to welcome the public for the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra concert on Friday. The audience took their seats before a stage bathed in neon shades of pink and blue while the cymbals of a single drum set glittered under the spotlights. 

The show began at 7:30 p.m. with an opening performance by hip-hop rapper Animosity. He amped up the audience with inspiring original lyrics and a strong beat that had everyone nodding their heads or swaying their feet. When he finished his set, there was a brief intermission, after which the highly anticipated Jonathan Scales Fourchestra silently took to the stage. 

The band played three songs without saying a word, but the audience was enthralled by the music. The first song, “Scales,” shifted the sound of the steel pan from classical piano to smooth jazz. All the following songs changed rhythms and musical styles seamlessly, in part because of the chemistry between Scales and his bandmates — bassist E’Lon JD and drummer Maison Guidry.

The band was on the same wavelength throughout the performance, so much so they didn’t need a setlist. Scales called songs on the spot and they were all played perfectly. It made the performance more natural and improvisational.

“That’s how you know that you’re getting a fresh experience with us,” Scales said. 

During the performance, JD’s rich bass notes anchored the music and set the tone for each song. In an emotional solo, JD showcased his smooth vocals. Meanwhile, Guidry’s hands moved like lightning across his drum set, and he brought a raw physicality to his playing that made his music feel alive. On the steel pan, Scales effortlessly adapted the crisp chimes of the instrument to every genre of song.

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The Jonathan Scales Fourchestra is unique because it has multiple styles. It is an amalgamation of many different genres including jazz, rock, and funk. Steel pan is traditionally associated with soca music, which is rooted in African and Caribbean rhythms that encourage listeners to dance. Scales demonstrates the versatility of the steel pan by applying it to other musical genres. 

“It’s really interesting because, especially with the music that we play, I’ve noticed that it bridges a lot of divides,” said Scales. “People from all walks of life really get into what we do.”

The Friday performance proved this to be true, with an audience diverse in age, ethnicity, and musical background. The Fourchestra was a unifying force, providing something about their music to love to every member of the audience.

The show’s producer and owner of Natural Talent Music, Creighton Gaynor, wanted to bring Scales to Iowa City for this reason when he first met Scales at a convention in 2019. 

“I’ve had so many positive experiences at music shows and met so many good people,” Gaynor said. “It’s usually like if you’re both there at the show, then you’re probably somewhat like-minded, even if you haven’t connected yet or your skin color has kept you apart, or whatever it might be. I’m trying to put things together that replicate some of those positive experiences.”

The Fourchestra also engaged with the audience. Scales kept the relationship between the band and the concertgoers casual, forging an intimate bond that allowed concertgoers to feel comfortable asking Scales questions and making comments. He shared stories about his work, even encouraging the audience to participate in a musical counting exercise so that they could be directly incorporated in a song.

Everyone took something different away from the performance. Mallory Hellman, an Iowa City resident who learned of the performance through Gaynor, took notice of the way the band listened to each other. 

“I like to write, and so I think about how to harmonize storylines and things like this,” she said. “To see that done in real time, simply from practice and listening to each other in that moment, it was like they were one voice.”