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.