Most of us regard the steelpan (or steel drum), when it crosses our minds to regard it at all, as a one-trick pony. It’s there to evoke the Caribbean islands — and not even their native cultures, but their tourist party lives. Victor Provost is living proof of the nuance and versatility of the instrument.
He’s from the Caribbean (St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands) but, as he did at Blues Alley on Wednesday, he turns those cultural traditions into virtuosic jazz. The steelpan is a percussive instrument, but Provost’s approach to it often resembles a piano more than a drum. On the lyrical set opener “Pinwheel,” for example, the content of his cascading improv lines were remarkably similar to those of his pianist, Alex Brown.
The instrument’s timbre and attack simply give his lines an inherently bumpier surface. Much of Provost’s art is about what he does with those rough sonics. At times, he exploited them to their best advantage. On a polyrhythmic tune called “Joropo” (“For now,” he cautioned, since the piece is really untitled but uses the Venezuelan joropo form) Provost was hammering out lightning-quick triplet rhythms, which he balanced with a swing bridge.
Not that his lines were not melodic; in fact, he lobbed out idea after melodic idea. But all of them were skillfully molded into the highly complex rhythmic patterns (complex enough that drummer Billy Williams Jr. was playing 4/4 on his snare drum and 3/4 on his kick).
At other points, his goal seemed to be to smooth out his instrument’s path. Playing the jazz standard “Stella by Starlight,” his quick single-note lines blended together like piano glissandi — meanwhile, Brown’s piano solo took the percussive tack. On his own dramatic “1733,” Provost evoked the impressionism of Bill Evans, taking on an urgent vocal cadence at the end. On Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” on which Provost might easily have been at his most overtly and stereotypically “island,” he was instead sweet and delicate in an entirely unexpected way, even as he played another bravura line. (Brown followed with a stunningly blues-ridden solo, with bassist Bob Bruya capping him with the song’s “everything gonna be all right” chant.)
The best moment of the night, though, found Provost not playing his instrument at all, at least not in the technical sense. “There’s a lot of notes so wish me luck,” he said winkingly to the crowd as he began the closing “Milonga Gris.” It was true, and he played them deftly, countering them with a spacious solo of discrete melodies. But once Brown started soloing, Provost leaned over and banged out a rhythm on the rim of his pan with thumbs and fingertips. Together they hammered home a smart, soulful, slightly funky concoction that brought the house down.