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Vince Guaraldi Trio, "Charlie Brown Christmas"I mention A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965) here not because it's a jazz classic. Of course, it is - a fine example of the post-bop piano trio, particularly on Vince Guaraldi's original compositions. I mention it, rather, because it conjures the feelings of Christmas from my childhood better than any album I own. If you, like me, watched cartoonist Charles Schulz's 1965 "Peanuts" Christmas TV special every year with rapt awe, you'll understand. There was something about that show that moved my little heart - and still does. When Linus (the moral center of Schulz's universe) took center stage to tell the Christmas story at Charlie Brown's Christmas pageant, I believed - more than a thousand Sunday schools could ever make me believe. Maybe it was Schulz's austere, graceful animation, or his gentle, cagey sense of humor, or his sweet, circumspect sentiment....

Or maybe it was the music. Vince Guaraldi had played piano with Woody Herman and Cal Tjader, and his trio scored a major pop hit in 1962 with "Cast Your Fate To The Wind" from his acclaimed album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus - a rare accomplishment for jazz artists in those days. Guaraldi's deft touch on the keyboard soon spawned a collaboration with Schultz, the creator of "Peanuts," a groundbreaking comic strip that was cause célèbre among children and intellectuals alike.

Vince Guaraldi Trio, "Charlie Brown Christmas"Schultz and Guaraldi, along with TV producer Bill Melendez, began their longstanding relationship with Jazz Impressions Of A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Fantasy, 1964), the soundtrack to a documentary about the cartoonist and his creations. The foundation of the "Peanuts" sound was laid here, including Guaraldi's "Linus & Lucy," the song most listeners will identify as "The Peanuts Theme." The bouncy, bossa nova-inspired track also shows up on both A Charlie Brown Christmas and Oh, Good Grief! (Warner Brothers, 1968), Guaraldi's third and final LP of "Peanuts" bop.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first full-fledged "Peanuts" special, and it told the story of the hapless title character's search for the true meaning of the holiday. Guaraldi's playing is woven inextricably into the story, a near constant presence; the soundtrack album, actually, is nearly twice as long as the TV show itself. Accompanied by bassist Monty Budwig, drummer Colin Bailey (and, on some numbers, by a children's chorus), Guaraldi assays several Christmas standards. These include a swinging "O Tannenbaum," a moody "What Child Is This" (also included in a longer version as "Greensleeves"), and a variation on "Little Drummer Boy" called "My Little Drum."

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Vince Guaraldi Trio, "Charlie Brown Christmas"Of course, there is "Linus And Lucy" (which isn't a Christmas song) and "Christmas Time Is Here," a vocal number that is the soundtrack's most straightforward Christmas song. These tracks are instantly recognizable, but it's two Guaraldi-penned instrumentals - "Skating" (written with Mendelson) and "Christmas Is Coming" - that form the heart of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Both of these songs conjure strong associations with the season. This could simply be a result of their association with the cartoon, but I'd venture that such powerful impressionism is a measure of Guaraldi's compositional prowess.

A Charlie Brown Christmas has been remastered and/or reissued by Fantasy Records several times over the years, including in 2006 with restored artwork and bonus tracks and 2012 with two different bonus tracks. And, there's another disc, Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits (Fantasy, 1998), which combines a couple of the Christmas tunes with other holiday-oriented offerings from "Peanuts" specials. Personally, I'd stick with the original, but Holiday Hits is a great way to sample Guaraldi's other "Peanuts" work (spanning 15 TV specials and one feature film). Plus, many of the tracks are otherwise unavailable on CD.

Finally, at least two jazz tributes to Guaraldi's most celebrated album have been released. One, by pianist Cyrus Chestnut (2000), is pretty good. The other, 40 Years (2005), is a collection of smooth jazz (Rippingtons) and soft R&B (Toni Braxton) that should be avoided at all cost. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • O Tannenbaum
  • What Child Is This
  • Christmas Time is Here
  • Skating
  • Christmas is Coming

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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