Pianist David Ian has become a specialist in jazz interpretations of Christmas music. As well he should.
After performing as the lead guitarist in several groups, one of which received a Grammy nomination, Ian adopted an entirely different approach to jazz piano.
Bill Evans’s influence led Ian to investigate more complex, and sustained, voicings on the piano. Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas album, A Charlie Brown Christmas—which has become a Christmas classic—inspired him to project joy, reverence, and holiday spirit in each of Ian’s albums: Vintage Christmas Wonderland, Vintage Christmas, and Vintage Christmas Trio.
Having refined his approach to Christmas music even more, Ian has released his first new album in six years, Vintage Christmas Trio Melody. Once again, Ian’s new album includes, as in the traditional jazz piano trio format, bassist Jon Estes and drummer Josh Hunt.
Ian introduces Vintage Christmas Trio Melody with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” His thoughtful solo rubato interpretation in a swaying meter of three involves re-harmonization, brief dissonant accents in adjacent two-note chords, rippling ascending phrases, warm sustained chords, and upper-register tonal repetitions like the ringing of bells. The initial vamp gains force and volume. Then, at 1:32, Estes and Hunt come in to shift the initial rhythm to a swing in four. But, defying expectations, the jazz trio’s walking-bass version lasts only until 1:58. Ian returns to a meter of three again with a repeat of the more haunting, looser version of Romantic Period characteristics. That is, Ian starts and concludes with Evans’s horizontal and extended phrasing, interrupted but for 26 seconds by a Guaraldian outburst of bliss.
And so, even from the start of the album, it becomes evident that Ian’s musical approach to traditional Christmas music isn’t traditional. Nonetheless, his reverence for the holiday remains intact and ruminative, while his sense of joy is a constant undercurrent. The seemingly conflicting but complementary moods of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” foreshadow the album’s elegance that continues.
“Away in a Manger” attains a single-note music-box simplicity…until it evolves into a jazz waltz like Guaraldi’s version of “O Tannenbaum.” With insight into the spirit of Christmas’s intended combination of happiness and adoration, Ian alternates between the two styles throughout the track’s four minutes.
In a largo tempo, “We Three Kings” draws attention with McCoy Tyner-like plunging minor-key bass-clef chords contrasting with the cheerfulness of the upper treble-clef melody, a combination of gladness and approaching dignity. Throughout the track, Ian contrasts the release from a timed rhythm with its resumption.
By the time that Ian’s trio plays “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (the fifth track), it becomes apparent that Ian enjoys the opportunities presented by converting music usually sung blandly in four to an engaging waltz. With the addition of syncopation and the anticipation of the beat after the chiming first chorus, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” becomes a jazz waltz with several choruses of improvisation personalized by Ian. Eventually, Ian develops his own alternative mid-track melody to accompany Hunt’s subdued drum solo. Cleverly, Ian ends his interpretation of the Christmas carol with a slightly altered quote from Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here.”
Amid the heartening versions of Christmas standards, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” projects Classical solemnity and importance of announcement with its insistent darkened minor-key mode and forceful accents at the ends of phrases. The mood is heightened by Estes’s brief arco accompaniment before he switches back to pizzicato back-up at 1:33.
The leisurely pace of Ian last track, “Silent Night,” comforts the listener as Ian takes his time with contemplative devotion to project the appropriate mood with rests of sustained chords, grace notes, coruscating treble ornaments, a key change, and a slowly developing vintage Christmas trio melody, familiar and yet pensively enhanced.
Artist’s Web Site: www.iantunes.com