Jazz steelpan is rare enough to be a novelty, but Victor Provost knows that novelty only goes so far—so he cultivates abilities to back it up. First and foremost, the D.C. pannist has a gift of the highest order for melody. It was the central attraction of his 2011 self-released debut, Her Favorite Shade of Yellow (and indeed, the first thing one notices—after the unusual instrument—in his live performances). That gift is still on display in his sophomore effort and label debut, Bright Eyes, but this time it’s in second position. The real treat of this suitably Afro-Caribbean-flavored music is in Provost’s capacity to build his own momentum in a steelpan solo.
That’s to say that Provost lets the written material (he penned eight of the 11 tracks) and the drive of his rhythm section (pianist Alex Brown, bassist Zach Brown, drummer Billy Williams) guide the shapes of his improvisations, without dictating those shapes. The uptempo funk of “Fitt Street,” for example, seems designed to embellish both of those qualities; Alex Brown’s electric piano solo and Williams’ 16-bar break both oblige. Provost then enters, flirts for a moment with his theme, and then immediately downshifts, putting spaces between distinct new ideas that run at about half the band’s tempo. He gains steam as he goes, but on his own terms—and happily refashions the rhythm on those terms as well. He does it again on “Twenty,” a dreamy but suspenseful ballad in 7/8, and on the dramatic “Song for Chelle”; after the Browns’ romantic lilts on the latter, he instead charts an energized, often breakneck rhythmic feel over the rhythm section’s tender waltz. Where appropriate, though, Provost will go with his bandmates’ flow: On “Fete Antillaise” he proceeds with, and develops, the in-the-pocket dance groove that Zach Brown laid out in his preceding solo, but even here he shakes things up with some unorthodox note choices.
A number of guests are featured on Bright Eyes, and seem inspired by (or the inspiration for) Provost’s determined idiosyncrasy. On the title track, vibraphonist Joe Locke has things to say that are considerably brighter and more playful than Provost’s fond, sentimental tune, and says them in a well-structured line that’s nonetheless off the beat by just a hair; D.C. saxophonist Tedd Baker stays on the beat but adds propulsion that kicks Williams and the Browns up a notch. Provost, following them, moves into double time—and pushes hard against his own chord changes. Percussionist Paulo Stagnaro is a subtle presence at best on Vince Mendoza’s “Ella Nunca Tiene Una Ventana,” but he nonetheless breathes new energy into the proceedings, especially in the second of Provost’s two solos.
On the other hand, neither Stagnaro nor alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera save “Homenaje” from being the album’s weakest track. (They’re not to blame, either—it’s simply the longest and most elaborate composition, squeezing out much room for improv on a disc whose improvs comprise its strongest element.) Yet Provost’s work, and that of the solid band behind him, by far outshine that blemish. Novelty aside, Victor Provost deserves to be a jazz star, and Bright Eyes is just the latest evidence.
The Victor Provost Group will play a CD release show at 8 p.m. on Oct. 19 at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. $25.