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Guest vocalists Tal & Acacia stand out on David Ian’s pensive ‘Valentine’s Day’

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David Ian “Valentine’s Day” [January 28, 2014]

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[Mixes] mellow instrumental numbers with stylish vocal performances from five different singers... the more you listen, the more you hear. Jack Goodstein, BlogCritics.org

Canadian-born rock guitarist David Ian fell madly in love in high school – with jazz. While he was out shredding in a number of garage bands, he also found himself enamored with the jazz standards. He even helped build up a jazz lab curriculum at his Akron, OH high school, studying under beloved jazz piano teacher Pat Pace. Ian would go on to play in Church of Rhythm, which then became the Grammy-nominated Superchick. But jazz never left him.

His piano studies came in handy when Ian set his sights on recapturing moments of his youth with two vintage Christmas records, the November 1, 2011 album, “Vintage Christmas” and the September 24, 2013 EP, “Vintage Christmas Wonderland.” On January 28, 2014, he released a third in a line of vintage holiday records, with the substantial and personal, “Valentine’s Day.”

Ian again brings back his intimate studio trio – upright bassist Jon Estes, percussionist Josh Hunt, with cellist Matt Nelson, violinist Elizabeth Estes, and a core group of vocalists, sisters Acacia Wulfing and Talitha Walters-Wulfing, and Andre Miguel Mayo, leading and arranging on piano and guitar. He also invites gospel vocalists Kevin Max and Russ Taff to the romantic occasion.

Hunt’s familiar, vintage-sounding cymbal brush strokes permeate this Valentine’s Day-themed album too, occasionally weighing the mellow, floaty music down. At times, too, the piano strokes tend toward a limp, melancholy finish (“There Will Never Be Another You,” “Stella By Starlight”) blending together for a very sorrowful and not very romantic experience.

Ian’s song choices weren’t necessarily driven by the hearts and flowers of a lovely Valentine’s Day. Many of the 11 tracks are standards he first discovered as a jazz lover, which kind of explains the despair and sadness left by downers “Summertime,” “Young And Foolish,” and “Solitude” – the complete antithesis of this lover’s holiday.

Acacia’s “Solitude,” about a lonely woman missing her love, is so opposite of Valentine’s Day, it’s not even funny: “In my solitude, you taunt me with memories that never die. I sit in my chair, filled with despair, no one could be so sad. With gloom everywhere, I sit and I stare. I know that I’ll soon go mad, go mad.” But she gives proper somberness and a touching pathos to this sad little forlorn song. She sings it as haunted and as spare as the lyrics. Acacia’s cavernous, ghostly voice is a voice that one never tires of. She never tackles a song predictably. She questions the direction of familiar lyrics and leaves the melody before it has a chance to wrap up nicely, leaving the listener unsettled and wanting. When she reaches the end of “Solitude,” singing, “Dear Lord above, bring back my love,” she does so in a question, unfinished, amplifying her loneliness.

Acacia’s sister Talitha also turns in a wonderful standard remake. Her “Summertime” keeps up with the contemplative resignation of the original from Gershwin’s 1935 opera, Porgy And Bess. Yet, her original choices in phrasing and hesitation intensify the inevitable doom, while giving the next lyrical wave strange mystery. Her every word is weighed down with misery, but the lilt she gives at odd places sends shock waves of hope and a helpless appreciation for whatever good comes. The strings and the rolling piano toward the end match well with her abrupt, “Summer!” salutation. Nobody’s ended (or begun?) the song quite like that before.

Another successful vocalist is Andre Miguel Mayo on “Young And Foolish.” His voice is just so naturally warm and wistful on this beloved standard. This beloved standard needs Mayo, and he doesn’t disappoint. He wraps his soft, rich vocals around every precious, lovely melodic turn, as if putting on a favorite, old pair of socks, or pulling a loved one close to his bosom. His voice on this song brings back fond memories of family barbecues with the grandparents, along with everything else that brings a warm smile.

Vocalist Kevin Max (dc Talk) has the unenviable task of redoing “My Funny Valentine,” one of the only legitimate Valentine’s Day songs on this album. To his credit, Max doesn’t augment his vocals with excess or try too hard to reinvent an entire score. He hangs long enough on the harmonic tension of the melodically tough turns to cause interest, dragging on the typical dramatic teasers, “When you open it to speak, are you smaaart?” Still, as a vocalist, he seems much too enamored of the harmonic differences, and the solo piano — even with the strings to cut diagonally — trip too lightly over the important parts. The solo is where the musician can put his personal stamp, how he’s feeling about his own love, how he’s feeling about himself. The personal just isn’t there. They try though. Acacia would kill on this song. Imagine that.

Everybody does “Autumn Leaves.” David Ian’s arrangement is different enough to work without a complete collapse. His intro catches in the throat of upright bassist Estes before Ian on piano rolls out into well-worn melodic territory. Ian, however, doesn’t tread too far over the easier path in his time-elapsed embellishments. He cuts through with enough harmonic lifts and cadences to break up the monotony. His vertical fills, as they slip and glide, rise and rise further, display a firm grip on jazz interpretation.

New to David Ian’s vintage feel is gospel singer and songwriter Russell Taff (Gaither Vocal Band) on “Sweet By And By,” the bonus track. Taff sings the Christian hymn a little overwrought and holy, his voice threatening to lose balance at any moment. Not sure why this song was tacked at the end; it’s unnecessary to the whole and simply adds to the heavy depressive feel.

Maybe David Ian would’ve been better off leaving his last track to “There Will Never Be Another You,” a surprising wonder of gnarly stringwork and piano crescendo. There’s a strange but refreshing tug of discordancy in the smattering of pretty piano notes, pushing the border of chord pleasantry and a possible slip any minute now. Cellist Nelson picks up on the departure, teasing it nicely in a brief solo.

For those hating the commercialism of Valentine’s Day, David Ian’s version in album form does the trick. It’s neither sentimental nor fatuous. Give or take a few vocal misses, overall, “Valentine’s Day” plays well any day of the year. Go straight to Acacia’s “Solitude” first, to get in the right frame of mind. Screw Hallmark.

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