Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas – Fantasy Records F-8431 (1965)/Craft Recordings (2020) 180-gram stereo vinyl Limited Lenticular Edition, 40:25 *****:
(Vince Guaraldi – piano; Fred Marshall – double bass; Jerry Granelli – drums; Monty Budwig – double bass; Colin Bailey – drums)
Often, music embraces cultural transcendence. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is closely associated with fireworks displays. Many who grew up in the 1950’s would refer to the dramatic apex of the William Tell Overture as the opening theme to The Lone Ranger. In jazz circles, the crossover significance has been less obvious. Dave Brubeck was featured on the cover of Time. Duke Ellington’s score for Anatomy Of A Murder was a vital component to its success. But in 1965, Vince Guaraldi elevated jazz into the mainstream with his jazz soundtrack for Charles Schulz’ beloved Peanuts-based animated television special. There were several, but A Charlie Brown Christmas is clearly the defining legacy of Vince Guaraldi. Recorded with two separate rhythm sections and a children’s choir, it became an immediate critical and commercial success. Guaraldi managed to intermingle jazz with traditional Christmas music in a memorable way. Now, it is a lasting part of the holiday season, with Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole and It’s A Wonderful Life. The album has been released several times since its vinyl debut in both analog and digital formats.
Craft Recordings has released a vibrantly re-mastered 180-gram vinyl of A Charlie Brown Christmas. As with other great music, familiarity in no way diminishes the sheer impact of Guaraldi’s musical vision and instrumental acuity. As the songs play, the images of the various Peanuts characters immediately come to mind. Side Opens with the standard, “O Tannenbaum”. Guaraldi delicately moves through the first verse and chorus with faithful accuracy. After a subtle chord change, he breezes into a bouncy medium-swing vibe that epitomizes his jazz approach. Taking on another classic (“What Child Is This”), the pianist adopts a waltz time-signature. His chords and notation distill the essence of the melody, but infuse jazz flourishes and an improvisational touch. On the first original composition (“My Little Drum”), Guaraldi aspirationally with vocalese shading from the choir. His instrumental fluidity is explored in a masterful blend of hypnotic pulse and key changes. Perhaps the most recognized song on A Charlie Brown Christmas is “Linus And Lucy”. The festive up tempo arrangement is evocative and captures the spirit of Schulz’s unique world. At the 1;53 mark, there is another trademark swing transition that elevates the track. The instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here” is graceful and tender. It exudes warmth and happiness and has a nimble double bass solo. Guaraldi is synchronized with the glowing message of the animated special.
Side Two has the vocal rendition of “Christmas Time Is Here”. The angelic children’s voices (in unison) are juxtaposed in stereo with the piano. Guaraldi’s solo is understated and elegant. “Skating” is another energetic performance with 3/4 time flourishes and a muscular, bluesy interlude. in the middle. The chord changes are infectious and ear-catching. Revisiting the solemn aspect of Christmas (“Hark, The Herald Angels Sing”), voices and organ are presented without jazzy inflections or improvisation. Signature Guaraldi motifs shine on the ebullient “Christmas Is Coming”. At 1:04 there is a patented finger-snapping turn that is fluid and soulful. Of course, the inevitable return to cheerful resonance is executed flawlessly. On “Fur Elise’, Guaraldi faithfully interprets Beethoven in recognition of the composition’s inherent musical perfection. Any listener will visualize Schroeder hunched over his tiny piano. In a “modern” cover, “The Christmas Song” is an indelible part of the Yuletide catalog. It works in almost any type of arrangement. Guaraldi’s intimate translation allows the melody to envelop the quiet chords and notation. His innate awareness of the lyrical nature (both figurative and literal) of the number is focused and very articulate. In a final jazz reinvention of traditional pieces, “Greensleeves” flows gracefully and has a melancholic feel with Guaraldi’s best piano runs on the album. His phrasing and timing are flawless.
Craft Recordings has done a superior job in re-mastering A Charlie Brown Christmas to 180-gram vinyl. The overall sound mix is pristine and balanced. Vinyl enthusiasts will be wildly enthusiastic about the optical-illusory “dancing” lenticular album cover. The liner notes by iconic San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason read like an essay. This is a trend-setting part of musical history that belongs in everyone’s collection.
Side One: O Tannenbaum; What Child Is This; My Little Drum; Linus And Lucy; Christmas Time Is Here (instrumental)
Side Two: Christmas Time Is Here (vocal); Skating; Hark, The Herald Angels Sing; Christmas Is Coming; Fur Elise; The Christmas Song; Greensleeves