Jazz Album Review: The Vince Guaraldi Trio — “Peanuts” and Beyond
By Michael Ullman
Vince Guaraldi isn’t the heaviest of jazz pianists: he played at a time when McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans were omnipresent. But his tunes, his gently humanist approach to music, meant that he reached listeners that others couldn’t or didn’t.
Vince Guaraldi Trio: Charlie Brown’s Holiday Hits (Fantasy)
Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy)
Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Fantasy-Craft lp)
Vince Guaraldi Trio: Impressions of Black Orpheus Deluxe Edition
In a surprisingly frank interview with critic Ralph Gleason, Vince Guaraldi admitted, or asserted, that he wasn’t a great piano player. His goal was to please people. He sounded like the cartoon icon Charlie Brown, that perpetually plaintive winner in spite of himself. Charles Schulz, Charlie Brown’s creator, could sound similarly self-deprecating. Of the astonishing worldwide success of his Peanuts comic strip, he said: “It’s kind of embarrassing sometimes that a hundred million people are reading each day the dumb things I did as a kid.” Almost inadvertently, it would seem, these two, Guaraldi and Schulz, made musical as well as broadcast history with a series of televised Charlie Brown specials that featured Guaraldi’s compositions and playing. This mass success continued with ensuing albums of Brown-inspired compositions.
Yet even before the Peanuts specials, after recording two albums for Fantasy that sank almost without a trace, the San Francisco-based Guaraldi had released an unexpected hit. He was an experienced musician: a pianist with Woody Herman’s Third Herd, Guaraldi played regularly with the popular vibist Cal Tjader. His first trio records seem to come from a gentler, almost unobtrusive, space. Then he struck gold. In November 1961 and February 1962, months before Stan Getz made his first bossa nova record, Guaraldi recorded his Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, an early tribute to bossa nova. Fantasy issued a single from that album, and its executives must have expected that Guaraldi’s “Samba de Orfeu” would have wide appeal. We’ll never know. What happened was that the B side with Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” took off. It became a radio hit, and the LP found (as I can attest) fans not usually attracted to jazz. It would win a Grammy as the Best Original Jazz Composition in 1963.
“Cast Your Fate” begins with Guaraldi playing a simple, but off-beat, introduction over the subtle drumming of Colin Bailey. Over this gently enlivening bass pattern comes the cheerful melody that begins with an optimistic-sounding octave leap and a skipping descent that is repeated. The harmonies are simple. Then, with a sudden crescendo, the song starts to stomp, with a phrase ending decisively on the beat and some of the melody subsequently switching to the left-hand bass. The airy innocence of the beginning becomes a march, but only for four bars. Somehow this unlikely piece, which seems to come in two parts, was instantly memorable and appealing. Yet few people remember the brief piano improvisation that follows. Guaraldi’s strength seems to be reproducing and sometimes inventing lighthearted and catchy melodies. As I write, a deluxe edition of Guaraldi’s Impressions of Black Orpheus is soon to be out. (I am working with a download.) Besides the fancy packaging, new interviews, and photos, the collection will feature extra takes of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and others.
Meanwhile, I am listening to the beautifully engineered Craft LP version of the first commercially released Guaraldi recording of his Peanuts material. Reproduced in translucent green, A Boy Named Charlie Brown is subtitled The Original Sound Track Recording. It was originally issued in 1964. Even the lesser known pieces have their charm. These include the gently swaying rendition of “Happiness.” (Charlie Brown’s happiness is more like peaceful contentment.) Guaraldi pays tribute to that champion of Beethoven in his “Schroeder,” which sounds a bit like something on a player piano: its bridge includes a deliberately fancy trill. Fans of the TV specials will have heard the delightfully poignant “Charlie Brown Theme” repeatedly. “Linus and Lucy” is more complicated and percussive. Perhaps that reflects their relationship. We hear the drums and bass more prominently on this number, which includes a section of 4/4 swing. “Blue Charlie Brown” sounds like an improvised blues. This new LP comes with a delightful extra: eight baseball cards featuring our favorite Peanuts characters, including a portrait of Snoopy, tongue out, swinging wildly at a ball that’s probably too fast for him. The notes contain a mini-biography of Charles Schulz: things didn’t come easy to him.
Fantasy and Guaraldi followed A Boy Named Charlie Brown with an even greater success, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), reissued on Fantasy with three bonus tracks: “Greensleeves,” “Great Pumpkin Waltz,” and the timely “Thanksgiving Theme,” the last with trumpet and trombone added to the trio. In 2012, the Library of Congress named A Charlie Brown Christmas as one of 25 vintage recordings of “cultural, historical or aesthetic significance.” In many families, A Charlie Brown Christmas the TV show is part of their annual celebration. Among other sentimental delights, it has a chorus of children singing in “Christmas Time Is Here.” They celebrate “happiness and cheer,” of “olden times and ancient rhymes/of love and dreams to share.” What could be sweeter than that? Or their wordless chorus sung over Guaraldi’s organ on “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Slightly more challenging — and certainly more robust — is Guaraldi’s “Skating,” which sounds a bit like Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” There’s a lovely version of “The Christmas Song” played solo by Guaraldi. “What Child is This” is the pianist’s version of “Greensleeves.” So is “Greensleeves,” found here in a newly issued take.
First issued in 1998, Charlie Brown’s Holiday Hits was the Peanuts record made after Guaraldi’s untimely death of a heart attack in 1976. (He was 46.) The album begins a tribute to that lovably distinct character, “Joe Cool.” It has 14 numbers, five of which were also issued on either A Boy Named Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, which makes this the least appealing of the reissues. There are new sounds, such as Guaraldi playing electric piano on the oddly named “Heartburn Waltz.” “Camptown Races” is an up-tempo piece played over bongos. “Surfin’ Snoopy” doesn’t sound particularly holiday-like. Its melody is played as a call-and-response with brass.
As he knew, Guaraldi isn’t the heaviest of jazz pianists: he played at a time when McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans were omnipresent. But his tunes, his gently humanist approach to music, meant that he reached listeners that others couldn’t or didn’t. He made a ton of jazz fans. That, and these delightful tunes, are his legacy.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.