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A master of pan jazz ramajay
If you were in New York City this August and were lucky enough to see Paquito D’Rivera at the legendary Blue Note jazz club, you would have caught the young pan master Victor Provost. The jazz pannist played with the smoking hot Panamericana Ensemble featuring a diverse repertoire of Columbian, Venezuelan, and Peruvian inspired music. The week-long booking with Paquito D’Rivera in New York was the latest collaboration with the well-known Cuban saxophonist for Provost who travelled earlier in the summer to Chile to perform for a jazz festival as part of the Caribbean Jazz Project. His picture was in the New York Times earlier this summer as part of Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles’ band. In addition to his work with D’Rivera, Provost performed with a number of fine bands in many of the leading clubs in New York and Manhattan. In June, he played at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Lincoln Center with Dion Parson & 21st Century Band and performed with two bands that he works closely with in Washington, DC: Sine Qua Non and Afro Bop Alliance. He also performed at the Ellie Mannette Festival of Steel in Morgantown, West Virginia. Indeed Provost’s career is on the rise, and he seems to be getting more and more exposure by the day.
Born and raised on the island of Saint John, US Virgin Islands, Provost began taking piano lessons as a child and displayed early promise as a musician. However, by the age of 12, he found his true passion and joined Steel Unlimited II Youth Steel Orchestra under the leadership of Trinidadian pan pioneer Rudy Wells. In Trinidad, Wells is perhaps best remembered as a writer of test pieces for music festivals and the 1973 winning Panorama arrangement of Lord Kitchener’s Rainorama for Trinidad All Stars. In addition, he was the Panorama arranger for All Stars for several more years and contributed a number of arrangements for the stage side. But as Denise Hernandez of the Trinidad All Stars notes, Wells was much more for Provost and many others, “He has done fantastic music and training of youths with the pan.” Provost may be his best student and has enormous respect for Wells as a primary influence on his career. Wells is one of the great, unsung heroes of pan. He didn’t have a huge performance career but was an incredible player. When he went to Berklee (School of Music) …You couldn’t go to Berklee and play pan. So he went to Berklee and studied vibes, studied the vibraphone. That’s even more amazing to me, that he basically went to college as an adult and picked up an instrument that he’d never played before and worked hard at it to the point where he was able to graduate from the program on that instrument.
In 1970, Wells started a steelband programme on Saint John called Steel Unlimited as part of the Saint John School of the Arts. In later years a second band, Steel Unlimited II, was added to the programme. Provost first heard Steel Unlimited II as a youth and instantly fell in love with pan. Despite being comprised totally of youth players, the band travelled the world, including the East Coast in the summer of 1992, places Provost found incredible. The first time we went out was for about a week and a half, two weeks… We did Disney World and New York, then the following year we did Denmark and Germany and that was a month, I believe it was 30 days. And it was a ridiculous number of performances. It was something like 25 performances in 30 days.
This was heady stuff for a teenager and all because of pan. The following year it was France and Switzerland, and it was that experience that changed Provost’s future. “Travelling with that group is basically what solidified my desire to be a musician, like a working musician because I love the travelling and I love the playing and I love meeting the people. And I like experiencing the cultures. And I couldn’t think of a better way to do that than doing through music.” Provost continued his studies with Wells into the mid-1990s. During that era, Provost came with Wells to Trinidad in the summers as part of a Pan Trinbago initiative where Wells returned to Trinidad and taught a master class in harmony and arranging at the All Stars pan yard was his first chance to see panyards and the Trinidad scene and Provost soaked up the experience.
In 1998, Provost was the first featured steel pan soloist at the world-renowned Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy. Besides playing with pickup groups for tourists in Saint John, however, his career was put on the back burner in the early 2000s. Looking towards his future, Provost left the Caribbean for the University of Pittsburgh with a plan to major in computer science. The pan jumbie caught up with him in Pittsburgh, however, and Provost hooked up with jazz musicians from Virgin Islands and started playing regularly in the area. He eventually left Pittsburgh and ended up in the Virginia Beach, Virginia area where Provost started directing a pan programme. His solo career started taking off and he continued to focus more and more on jazz improvisation, spending a year in close correspondence studying with the great jazz instructor Charlie Banacos. At home in Washington, DC, where he has lived since 2009, Provost splits his time between teaching pan, working on his masters degree at George Mason University, and regular performances with the bands Sine Qua Non, Afro Bop Alliance, his own small group, and other local groups. Provosts’ regular bands are as different and eclectic as the pannist himself. Sine Qua Non is a quintet led by bassist and composer Michael L Bowie that largely features his compositions. They were just involved in a multi-media theatrical show earlier this fall. Afro Bop Alliance is a larger Grammy award-winning Latin jazz ensemble. Provost is right at home in the Washington, DC jazz scene and was named Percussionist and Jazz Artist of the year in 2012.
In recent years, Provost has recorded with an ever-growing number of jazz artists and recently released his debut album Her Favourite Shade of Yellow in 2011. The title is a reference to his wife’s colour of choice and the album is a bop-oriented classic that really stands out among jazz pan releases. Provost recorded the album with a small group and features a number of original compositions and some jazz standards by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane, as well as shimmering elegant version of Lord Kitchener’s Rain-O-Rama and Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. His dedication to pan has drawn praise from many such as Liam Teague, who featured Provost with the Northern Illinois University steelband for the Fall 2010 concert in DeKalb, Illinois: “I have the greatest respect in the world for his artistry! What an amazing musician! I continue to be amazed by his improvisation and playing, in general. He is a wonderful ambassador for the steelpan and is definitely taking the instrument into new musical territory. I continue to be inspired by his profound and brilliant musical statements.”
Etienne Charles is equally effusive about the jazz pannist: “Victor Provost is equally rooted in bebop and calypso traditions. He stands at the forefront of the new generation of steelpan improvisers.” Besides performing, Provost loves teaching pan and currently runs a steelband at George Mason University and teaches younger students at CAFE every Saturday. The Cultural Academy for Excellence (CAFE) started in 1996 as an after-school and weekend program to help at risk youth stay in school and achieve with a program that features steelband and music instruction. New projects are popping up almost weekly for this young jazz-playing pan ambassador. With a number of recording sessions, gigs, and teaching on the horizon, the future looks bright and incredibly busy for Victor Provost.
Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Associate Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.
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