Sometimes, when he’s on the bandstand, his body jerking and his face locked in a grimace as he tucks into a solo that sails from one key change to the next, the jazz steel pan player Victor Provost likes to play a mind game with himself.
“I completely separate the pan sound, because I want just the content of what I play to stand out,” he explains. “I’m never comfortable when people say, ‘Man, that’s crazy for a steel pan.’ For me, the sound is just another color.”
Serious jazz on the steel pan — jazz imbued with the historical vocabulary of swing, bebop and the blues, and not, as Provost puts it, simply “improvised music” — may not be crazy. But it is admittedly unusual. There are a handful of older jazz steel pan improvisers: Othello Molineaux, who played with bassist Jaco Pastorius; Rudy Smith, now 73; and the American Andy Narell, but almost no one on the instrument has tried to make it the basis of a career.
Provost, whose first album on an actual record label, Paquito Records, is scheduled for release on Jan. 20, the day he turns 36, could well succeed. With almost three decades of playing the steel pan under his belt, Provost has reached that combination of sensibility and chops that turn his bop-driven jazz solos into mesmerizing rides that at times swing the listener off into an abyss and then pull him back with a triumphant return home, the root chord suddenly appearing, equilibrium regained.
“I love the beauty of the tension and the release, and the idea that you are making art extemporaneously, that you and the audience are experiencing this for the first time together,” Provost says.
The rhythmic nuance of bebop, the melodically complex jazz form that came of age during World War II and is best personified by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, also has its appeal. “That time feel, in between a triplet and an eighth note, you can’t really notate it and you can’t really teach it,” he says. “It’s like an accent,” adds Provost, who was born and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands and has a slight Caribbean lilt to his speech.
Provost teaches at George Mason University, where he also directs the steel band orchestra, and has been living in the Washington area since 2009. His new album, “Bright Eyes,” is mostly Provost originals, and the title cut is an homage to his young daughter, Victoria Rae. The label is the personal imprint of Cuban-born saxophone legend Paquito D’Rivera. Vibraphonist Joe Locke, along with D’Rivera and saxophonist Ron Blake, among others, are guest soloists.
“The music he plays transcends what one would think of when people think of the steel pan. He plays a language more associated with a great saxophonist or pianist. He just happens to be doing it on a steel pan,” says Locke, 57, perhaps the foremost vibraphonist of his generation, who used Provost on his 2015 album, “Love is a Pendulum.”
Which, for Provost, is both his blessing — “I’m not just bringing you another saxophone-led jazz quartet,” he tells bookers — and his curse — “like a lot of world instruments, the bagpipes, the oud, the kora, the sitar, the pan is pigeonholed,” he explains. “Just by virtue of their sound, they’re so culturally connected to a region or an ethnicity, it’s almost impossible to pull them apart from that.”
That’s especially true for the steel pan — also called the steel drum — a rarity among musical instruments in that it did not evolve over hundreds of years or over a large geographic area. It was created in the 1930s and 1940s in the then-British colony of Trinidad and Tobago by cutting off the bottoms of empty 55-gallon steel oil drums, shortening the sides into a skirt and “sinking” — or pounding — the top down into a bowl. A series of convex domes, little bumps really, that are the various notes of the scale are then hammered out onto the instrument’s bowl-shaped top.
For most people, the pan and a mythic version of a certain bygone Caribbean lifestyle are inseparable. “Folks get off the cruise ship, and there are some guys in Rasta caps banging on the docks with their pans, playing ‘Mary Ann’ or ‘Margaritaville,’ ” Provost says. “When the audience sees this instrument, they expect to hear what they saw on that cruise ship or at a bar mitzvah or birthday party. I could make a lot more money playing that,” he adds.
Provost’s career path is as unconventional as his decision to play jazz on the steel pan. His parents moved to St. John, one of three main islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands, from Philadelphia in the mid-1960s after first visiting on their honeymoon. His mother ran a travel agency, and his father became a science teacher in the Virgin Islands’ public school system.
Provost went to one of the two public schools on St. John, which had about 450 children in grades one through nine. “There were three or four other white kids in the school, max,” recalls Provost, “and that includes me and my brother.” His father taught the eighth-grade science class; the year Provost was in his father’s class, he recalls, “all the students ended up calling him ‘Pops.’ ”
When he was about 10, Provost was in the basement of the St. John School of the Arts practicing piano when he heard the school’s steel drum band upstairs playing the theme song from “Chariots of Fire” — with a calypso beat. “That was so much more fun than practicing this stuffy European classical music in this tiny room. I wanted to be playing calypso upstairs with my friends.”
In fact, the school’s steel band was legendary, making two European tours while Provost was in the group. Steel bands, now found in countries around the world and becoming increasingly popular in the United States, include at least a half-dozen types of steel drums with different tonal ranges. But in a steel pan orchestra, much of the playing is straightforward, and there’s almost no room for improvisation.
Provost picked that up with the type of high school gig most budding musicians would kill for: playing solo, with just his pan and a sequencer (which produced a karaoke-like soundtrack) for two years every night — twice on Mondays — at the Caneel Bay Hotel. Best of all, he says: “nobody was really paying attention, so I got to experiment. It was paid practice.”
Provost left St. John for the University of Pittsburgh in the fall of 1999, where he planned to major in computer science. But music won out. He spent two years playing nights with a seven-piece band run by a fellow Virgin Islander, Arnold Stagger. One night, while helping Stagger unload equipment at 2 in the morning, Stagger turned to Provost. “ ‘Man, you don’t have to play all the time,’ ” Provost remembers him saying. “ ‘You need to listen and to figure where you fit in sonically.’ I learned on the bandstand,” Provost notes.
He eventually quit college and got a job selling washers and dryers at Sears on straight commission — “not for the faint of heart,” he says. He met his wife, Rachelle, in Pittsburgh, and the two moved to the Tidewater area of Virginia, where Provost got a job running the local steel band as part of an after-school intervention program.
Provost continued to work on his jazz chops, spending more than a year taking a correspondence course with Charlie Banacos, a legendary jazz pianist who ultimately provided Provost some 35,000 lines of music to learn, each of which was a different way to approach a different note in one of six chord types — major, minor, dominant seventh, etc. — in each of the 12 keys. Provost says that while he studied with Banacos, he had to practice from 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. every day.
“That is the thing that moved my playing to the beginnings of actually being able to sound like a jazzman.”
A few years ago, after taking up his teaching job at George Mason (where he earned BA and MM — Master of Music — degrees), Provost switched to a low G tenor pan, built by the Philadelphia pan craftsman Kyle Dunleavy. The notes follow the typical tenor pan arrangement, a cycle of fifths moving clockwise around the pan, with each note physically smaller, and hence higher, as the circle moves closer to the center of the bowl.
But the low G pan has a range that extends about five notes lower than normal tenor pan, to the G below middle C. It has given Provost a much broader palette, and when he plays, the resonances and counter-resonances of the polished chrome can sound with the intensity of Sunday church bells pealing in a European village square. The timbre of the lower notes is round and full, and like the upper register, there’s often an elemental, metallic ache to the sound.
Provost’s next recording, he hopes, will be almost all jazz standards. He wants to front a Hammond B-3 organ, a quintessential jazz instrument, and bass and drums. It would be novel.
“It’s never been done,” says Provost, “but I want to push the envelope of how you can conceive of this instrument in a jazz setting. The organ trio has a really long tradition, and I want to disrupt that a little bit.”