Victor Provost’s steel pan ripples like a jellyfish symphony under a Caribbean sea on ‘Bright Eyes’
A few instruments in the jazz vernacular often fail to either stand out or blend in: organ, flute, vibes. A really stand-out artist can expand the limits of the instrument’s make-up and contort the distinctive sounds into beautiful new music.
Steel pan virtuoso Victor Provost does this quite well on his new album, Bright Eyes (Paquito/Sunnyside). Bright Eyes did quite well on its debut release Jan. 20, hitting #5 on the iTunes Top 40 jazz charts.
Absorbent like a sponge, yet armed with passion for the uncommon — he did gravitate toward the collective radar of the steel pan, after all — Provost has managed the unimaginable on 11 tracks, a mix of covers and originals with a solid band of core and guest musicians.
They include his core: pianist Alex Brown and his brother Zach on bass (Terri Lyne Carrington, Paquito D’Rivera), and drummer Billy Williams Jr. The trio cemented their musical relationship on gigs with the great vibist Warren Wolf.
Guest musicians are tenor saxophonist Tedd Baker and guitarist John Lee on the jazz-funk/Caribbean tune, “Eastern Standard Time”; percussionist Paulo Stagnaro on Vince Mendoza’s “Ella Nunca Tiene Una Ventana”; Trinidad trumpeter Etienne Charles and St. Thomas saxophonist Ron Blake on Tom Glovier’s “La Casa de Fiesta”; Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera featured on “Homenaje”; and vibist Joe Locke lifting the title track, Provost’s ballad for his baby girl, born in 2014, and the muse behind the new record.
The jazz/R&B/Caribbean mix reflects Provost’s early, formative years on the island of St. John in the Virgin Islands. The tracks provide heady showcases for everyone concerned.
“Fete Antillaise” is full of drum/bass/piano goodness in a well-timed interplay, riffing off the Martinique tradition of mazuka, a kind of Africanized marzurka style of music from the French Caribbean. Provost’s own rippling jellyfish of a solo, floating in here and there, really makes this upbeat track sparkle.
I’m not sure if Provost knows this or not, but he transforms the Caribbean steel pan into a second piano in the way he almost liquefies the surface into three-dimensional, multi-layers. That piano vibe is everywhere, raising him above everyone else in a field ripe for growth.
He may have started off comping from horns, then following vibes, but piano seems to be his new score, opening up a whole other world of possibilities.
In a sense, Provost’s own cross-cultural style reminds me a bit of Stevie Wonder’s label-defying tendency to mix and match influential rhythms and languages well outside of the mainstream U.S., especially on the Grammy®-winning 1976 album, Songs In The Key Of Life — a magnificent outreach, buried deep in an African wellspring.
On “Fitt Street,” about Provost’s childhood summers in Trinidad, the steel pan artist matches Alex Brown (who is no slouch on keys) note for billowing note. Bass and drums fill in memorably.
Both “Fitt Street” and “Homenaje” bring the vibrancy of Provost’s Caribbean childhood to life, as well as pay proper musical tribute to the jazz that further expanded his repertoire and led him well on his way to original artist status.
“Homenaje” bounces along on a pleasant, almost contemporary jazz vibe found on so many Caribbean jazz cruises. The infusion of the salsa-like beats halfway in turns this festive instrumental into a dance number, welcoming all kinds of listeners.
The pianist captures a United Nations feel to this nice dance number, combining hardcore jazz chops with melodic ease. The composition references D’Rivera’s 1990s Caribbean Jazz Project, in which Provost played a part later, in 2013.
Whether the Bright Eyes musicians go hard (“Eastern Standard Time”) or soft (“Pan In Harmony,” “Twenty” — about Sandy Hook), lyrical (“La Casa de Fiesta”) or angular “Intro For Chelle [his wife],” Provost’s rippling, parallel-piano narrative threads everything together with that catchy, exclusive signature. “An instrument is an instrument, you have to make it do something,” is his motto, and he does more than enough to stand out.