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Critic's Notebook: Vince Guaraldi's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' score is a gift

The nearly 50-year-old TV soundtrack by the jazz pianist has a unique quality that makes it endure. Last month it was re-released for the third time, offering cheer to fans of jazz and the Peanuts holiday special.

November 24, 2012|By Chris Barton, Los Angeles Times Jazz Critic
  • The Peanuts kids gather in "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
The Peanuts kids gather in "A Charlie Brown Christmas." (United Features Syndicate )

It's here. The holiday season. And with it, an ever-creeping onslaught of music stuffed with enough synthetic cheer to weave a polyester overcoat for Dodger Stadium.

Hearing such tidings of great joy seems innocent enough, but repeated exposure could very well cause outbreaks of seasonal affective disorder on sunny days. But for all the bland and often cynically motivated holiday music produced each year (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, anyone?) there's one constant beacon within the genre that can soften the hardest heart.

Originally recorded in 1965, Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was re-released last month for a third time in various formats including cheery green vinyl for record-philes. Its connection to the most genuine and heart-warming (if vaguely depressive) Christmas special ever released makes it one of the most beloved holiday albums recorded — and the latest remastering makes it sound that much brighter.

But there is a not-so-hidden message to "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and it's not Linus' spotlighted moment with the second chapter of Luke, which endears the timeless special to church theater companies. It's the broader message of jazz carried by Guaraldi's evocative score and how a nearly 50-year-old cartoon acts as a potential gateway drug for any generation that falls under its spell.

When most jazz fans list the album that triggered their interest, titans such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and John Coltrane are often invoked. While these are fine choices, for a generation that came of age with an annual prescription of Charlie Brown and his little barren Christmas tree, Vince Guaraldi has been heard by more people than even the canonical "Kind of Blue."

"I don't think I'm a great piano player," the San Francisco-born Guaraldi reportedly said in 1958. "But I would like to be able to have people like me, to play pretty tunes and to reach the audience." He first recorded with Cal Tjader in the '50s and later with Brazil's Bola Sete, and Guaraldi also won a Grammy for best original jazz composition for 1962's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." But he's indelibly linked with the Peanuts gang, having performed the music for all their specials until his death at just 47 in 1976.

In a loving essay in the new edition's liner notes, writer Derrick Bang confirms that he was also first brought to jazz by the pianist's work, and this year's recognition of Guaraldi's score by the Library of Congress for permanent preservation indicates he is far from alone.

And who could blame any of us, really? The special's opening scenes, which include the melancholy Charlie Brown lamenting his uniquely grown-up sort of unhappiness, is framed by Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here," a song that for all its contemplative pleasures is one of the least effervescent holiday standards ever written, and it's all the better for it.

As the endearing chorus of children's voices dips behind the dialogue, there's Guaraldi's piano, patiently flickering atop a gently feathered cymbal hiss. The song's lovely, even melancholy murmur sounds like a first snowfall, quiet reflection and a realization that the holidays inspire a whole world of emotions in addition to joy. In contrast to something like "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," producer Lee Mendelson couldn't have asked for a more evocative backdrop for the special's one-of-a-kind, thoughtful pace.

This isn't to say Guaraldi's music exclusively views the holidays through the lens of Charlie Brown's glum leanings. The twinkling descent on "Skating" marks a gleefully airy backdrop for a sequence of children catching snowflakes, and the manic "Surfin' Snoopy" (an interlude not included on the soundtrack) weaves through a hard-swung pace with a muted trumpet as a certain beagle embraces the commerciality of the season. It's a subversive acknowledgment of a culture shift that now seems quaint as compared with consumption-crazed 2012.

Guaraldi's way with arrangements is equally striking, particularly to young ears. "O Tannenbaum" may be the simplest of Christmas carols, one that every kid learns in grade school. But with a lightly swung, off-center pace and Guaraldi's tumbling improvisations, the familiar song becomes enchantingly different. Reimagining the song's melody as he jabs and curlicues around its original orbit, Guaraldi set the table for a generation to be mystified by the power of expression and reinvention in jazz, a legacy that continues even as new standards are defined by today's piano trios led by Brad Mehldau and Vijay Iyer.

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