Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The sincerest form of flattery


While writing the final chapter of my book on Guaraldi, when it came time to briefly mention the unusual phenomenon of contemporary musicians who’ve chosen to cover the entire Charlie Brown Christmas score, I paused long enough to wonder whether this has happened very often.

Granted, jazz is a genre that encourages such behavior; consider the number of folks who’ve put their own stamp on, say, Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” But covering an entire album? Surely, that must be unusual.

And, indeed, it is ... but, by a curious coincidence, one of my other favorite jazz albums — also a TV score — has garnered the same attention: Henry Mancini’s iconic soundtrack for Peter Gunn. The series ran for three seasons, from September 1958 through September 1961, and Mancini actually produced two albums: The Music from Peter Gunn (1958) and More Music from Peter Gunn (1959).

To say that Mancini’s swingin’ themes made a splash would be an understatement. The first album reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Pop LP Chart, and suddenly everybody wanted a piece of the action. All sorts of folks covered the groovin' title theme, with Ray Anthony's version spending 17 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between January 5 and April 27, 1959; it peaked at No. 8 the week of March 2.

Ted Nash, Maxwell Davis and Pete Candoli had released the first cover album, titled simply Peter Gunn, the year before; Nash, Pete and Conte Candoli, calling themselves the Soundstage All Stars, followed with More Peter Gunn in 1959. Drummer Shelly Manne & His Men also released two albums in 1959: Play Peter Gunn and Son of Gunn. The Joe Wilder Quartet joined the fun in 1959, with Jazz from Peter Gunn; Ray Ellis and his Orchestra followed in 1960, with The Best of Peter Gunn.

(And if I’ve missed any others, please let me know.)

It’s very simple, really: When listeners really, truly love a particular score, they can’t get enough of it. Leonard Bernstein’s music for West Side Story is another good example; I couldn’t begin to tabulate all the jazz cover versions that album generated.

We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that Guaraldi’s beloved Christmas album has received the same treatment, and increasingly more often during the past few years.

But are they any good?

In most cases, yes, and well worth your time and money. And since this is the holiday season, it seems an appropriate time to discuss them all.

But let’s make it a bit more fun, and score the contestants according to my own whimsical parameters. Points therefore will be awarded for...

1) Covering all four of Guaraldi’s original tunes: “Christmas Time Is Here,” “Christmas Is Coming,” “Skating” and “Linus and Lucy” (5 points each, for a total of 20);

2) Covering all five of the traditional Christmas songs that Guaraldi arranged and included on the album: “O Tannenbaum,” “What Child Is This, (aka Greensleeves)” “My Little Drum (aka The Little Drummer Boy),” “The Christmas Song” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” (5 points each, for a total of 25);

3) Plus covering Beethoven’s “Für Elise” (25 point bonus);

4) And presenting them in the same album sequence (50 point bonus).

Fresh jazz covers of additional Christmas songs are nice, but count neither toward nor against the total score.

Finally, 10 points will be subtracted for unimaginatively calling the album A Charlie Brown Christmas, because that’s confusing. At the very least, the artist(s) in question should give their work some sort of original title.

Please note, though: The final tally applies solely to how faithful the cover elements are, and in no way reflects the musicality present. Jim Martinez’s album may score low in the “perfect cover” department, but it’s one of my favorites on this list.

Onward!


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Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut appears to have been first out of the gate, with the 2000 release of A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic 2A-83366).

The results are intriguing. Chestnut’s approach to the piano is quite spiritual; his interpretations of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (a duet with tenor saxman Michael Brecker) and “My Little Drum” are slow, somber and absolutely gorgeous. He’s equally adept at the up-tempo stuff; his covers of “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Is Coming” are marvelous.

Bryan McKnight delivers a mellow vocal on “The Christmas Song,” with Chestnut comping lyrically behind him; flutist Hubert Laws and percussionist Don Alias help give “Für Elise” a shimmying salsa vibe that’ll have you dancing in the living room.

That said, some of the stylistic choices are puzzling. I’m no fan of jazz harmonica, and it’s absolutely not the instrument of choice for “Skating”; a harmonica simply does not say “ice skating” to me.

Perhaps worse, the otherwise tasty vibes used in “What Child Is This” are obscured by the Manhattan Transfer’s gawpy background la-la-la punctuations, which sound more like something hijacked from a Lawrence Welk disc. I can’t understand it: You hire one of the jazz world’s finest vocal quartet, known for tight harmonies and boppin’ arrangements, and use them solely for color? That’s just weird.

On the other hand, Chestnut delivers a sweet original titled “Charlie Brown and Me,” first as a poignant solo and then, later in the album, as a lively combo arrangement that would have been right at home in a Peanuts TV special.

So, the results: all four Guaraldi songs (20), along with the five seasonal carols (25) and “Für Elise” (25). But the sequence is different (0), and Chestnut loses 10 points for album title. Final score: 60 points.

Five years then passed, until the 2005 release of 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Peak Records PKD-8534-2), a compilation album produced by jazz pianist and current Peanuts music torch-bearer David Benoit, who also performs on many of the tracks.

(It should be noted that the version of this album sold at Target contained two additional tracks exclusive to that big-box store: an early-ish example of the obnoxious marketing practice that has become increasingly common since then.)

This album is, ah, interesting, to say the least. Jazz purists will lament the frequent use of strings and vocal wah-wah accents, and the percussion is too heavy at times, particularly on “O Tannenbaum,” where the disco-style beat overwhelms Gerald Albright’s lush sax work.

But a few of the cuts are quite nice, starting with Benoit’s punchy, swinging cover of “Christmas Is Coming,” which gets the album off to a great start. Smooth jazz stalwart Dave Koz delivers an equally lively reading of “Linus and Lucy”; trumpet player Rick Braun supplies a solid rendition of “My Little Drum”; and Vanessa Williams brings heart-breaking poignance to the one new song, Benoit’s “Just Like Me.”

On the other hand, Toni Braxton destroys “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” — a song not even in A Charlie Brown Christmas — with a breathy, microphone-swallowing delivery that sounds as if each word is bursting between her lips during the height of sexual passion. And as inappropriate as Braxton’s delivery is, Chaka Khan is even worse on “The Christmas Song”: outrageously overwrought, her harsh, unappealing voice building to a (literally) shrieking climax. Ugh.

Tribute albums always run the risk of tainting pleasant memories of the original material, and it’s sad, but true: The contributions by Braxton, Khan and The Rippingtons (“Red Baron”) are so disappointing that they overshadow the rest.

The results: all four Guaraldi songs (20), but only four seasonal carols (“Greensleeves” is missing) (20) and “Für Elise” (25). The sequence is different (0), but Benoit avoids the penalty by supplying a fresh title. Final score: 65 points.

Pianist Jim Martinez also made his fondness for Vince Guaraldi public in 2005, with his self-released A Jim Martinez Jazzy Christmas (www.jimmartinez.com). Martinez handles piano and bass; thanks to the magic of post-production, it sounds like two different people performing. Harold Jones contributes solid drum work on most cuts, with Guy Kowarsh filling in on two.

Although it’s hard to tell from the outside, this album is a sorta-kinda cover of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Martinez offers up his readings of “Christmas Is Coming,” “Christmas Time Is Here” — a truly lovely piano solo — and the more rambunctious “Skating,” along with versions of “O Christmas Tree,” “The Christmas Song” and “Greensleeves,” all of which display echoes of Guaraldi’s handling of the same tunes.

Indeed, Martinez’s “Christmas Time Is Here” segues smoothly into a solo piano intro of “O Christmas Tree,” which then kicks into gear with a trio reading that borrows just enough from Guaraldi to make fans smile with recognition. But make no mistake: Martinez’s bridges and noodlings are very much his own, and quite enjoyable.

Martinez and his band perform quite frequently in church settings, and so the rest of his lovely album features his arrangements of traditional carols such as “O Holy Night,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and others. I particularly enjoy his up-tempo handling of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which includes a cute quote from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” truly cooks, while Evelyn White adds a rich vocal to the gospel-hued “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” She only sings at the beginning and conclusion; Martinez bridges her contribution with a sprightly keyboard solo.

Everything about this set suggests a program assembled for a live performance ... and, as the years have passed, I’ve been lucky enough to catch him numerous times in person. (Martinez travels a lot; check his web site to see if he’s coming to your area.)

The results, then: only three Guaraldi songs (“Linus and Lucy” is on one of his other albums, and so only 15 in this category), and only three seasonal carols (“My Little Drum” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” are missing, and so only 15 here) and no sign of “Für Elise” (0). The sequence is different (0), and the album title is quite distinct (no penalty). Final score: 30 points.

Which simply means than Martinez gets an A+ for eschewing a carbon copy and blazing his own holiday jazz trail.

Bassist Rob Swanson was drawn to jazz after the first time he watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on television; he repaid that debt, years later, by forming a band called the Christmas Cartoon Trio and booking gigs that focused on jazz interpretations of several seasonal animated classics.

The best arrangements have found their way onto 2008’s self-produced disc, Cartoon Christmas Trio, which is certain to be embraced by Guaraldi fans. The familiar Guaraldi compositions and arrangements are augmented by songs that popped up in a few other animated Christmas specials, with some additional holiday tunes tossed in to build an album. The result is mostly enjoyable, allowing for a few hiccups and a tendency for drummer Jackie Browne to indulge in the sort of solos beloved by high school garage bands.

Fortunately, Browne's occasional excesses are overshadowed by Jeff Knoettner's keyboard work — on both acoustic and electric instruments — and Swanson's excellent bass work.

Several of the arrangements are quite clever. “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” emerges as a cute, heavily percussive New Orleans strut in 4/4 time, while “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” opens with some hilariously ominous electronics before settling into a moody, bass-driven delivery. A lengthy rendition of “Sleigh Ride” gives all three musicians plenty of room to breathe, and also boasts another fine bass solo by Swanson.

“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is a delightful boogie-woogie strut: a heavy two-beat that suggests the corpulent Jolly Red Elf’s impressive size. But while a salsa-hued “Frosty, the Snowman” begins well, it suffers from the sort of monotonous mid-point drum solo that ruins too many Latin arrangements.

Most of the tracks are bouncy and quite engaging trio jazz, very much in the vein of the arrangement of “Jingle Bells” that closes the album: a kick-ass piano solo by Knoettner, which builds to a rocketing tempo as Swanson and Browne join the fun and bring the track home.

The results, then: only three Guaraldi songs (“Christmas Is Coming” is missing, and so only 15 in this category), and only two seasonal carols (“Greensleeves,” “The Christmas Song” and “My Little Drum” are missing, and so only 10 here) and no sign of “Für Elise” (0). The sequence is different (0), and the album title is quite distinct (no penalty). Final score: 25 points.

The Lenny Marcus Trio’s 2009 album, Comfort and Joy, evokes very fond memories of Guaraldi’s long-ago 1965 album. That said, Marcus makes this music his own; his inventive arrangements include echoes of Guaraldi, but then spin into pleasant new directions.

Marcus and his mates get things off to a lively start with a bouncy, attention-grabbing version of “Christmas Is Coming,” and Marcus shows his piano chops with an entirely different bridge in this up-tempo finger-snapper.

Bassist Scott Trayer shines during “O Tannenbaum” and “Little Drum,” the latter demonstrating how Marcus likes to mix things up; both “Little Drum” and “Christmas Time Is Here” open as slow and simple carols, before kicking into gear with midpoint tempo and style changes.

Marcus’ arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” digs into the hymn’s wintry mood, and he concludes a charming version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” blended with a few bars of “Jingle Bells.”

Marcus mixes the eight combo numbers with three piano solos: a boogie-woogie reading of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and two Beethoven classics, “Für Elise” and the Sonata Pathétique. The latter is a bit self-indulgent on a holiday jazz album, but it certainly brings things to a solemn conclusion.

The results: only two Guaraldi songs (“Skating” and “Linus and Lucy” are missing, and so only 10 in this category), and only three seasonal carols (“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “The Christmas Song” are missing, and so only 15 here), but Marcus rebounds with his cover of “Für Elise” (25). The sequence is different, of course (0), and the album title is quite distinct (no penalty). Final score: 50 points.

Pianist Eric Byrd takes his Guaraldi homage quite seriously, and in fact has turned it into a cottage industry. His trio worked a few selections from A Charlie Brown Christmas into a holiday concert back in 2000, and that led to an annual themed show that has become enormously popular ... particularly in Westminster, Maryland where the whole thing began. (Just try to get tickets!)

The show’s success, in turn, led to the 2009 release of Byrd’s self-produced album, A Charlie Brown Christmas. It isn’t a slavish reproduction, and that’s to Byrd’s credit; he and his band mates honor Guaraldi’s arrangements and original themes while still leaving themselves plenty of room to breathe.

The result is both familiar and different, and a great deal of fun.

Byrd opens with a solo piano introduction to “O Tannenbaum,” just as Guaraldi did, but then kicks into gear with a fresh arrangement that grant solos to himself, acoustic bassist Bhagwan Khalsa and drummer Alphonso Young Jr.

That model is followed throughout, and I’m particularly impressed by Byrd’s handling of “My Little Drum” and “Greensleeves,” both of which boast plenty of solid improv work.

Many Christmas songs have simple, often redundant melodies; after all, they were designed to be sung. The trick, when presenting an instrumental arrangement, is to hold the listener’s attention through inventive improv chops. Byrd and his trio do this quite well. Even Guaraldi’s original compositions  “Linus and Lucy,” “Christmas Is Coming” and “Skating”  retain just enough familiar melody line before launching into completely original bridges.

The iconic “Christmas Time Is Here” is presented twice: both as a gentle instrumental Khalsa’s bowed bass adding a nice touch  and as a vocal, with the singing handled by Byrd’s 6-year-old son, Jason. I’m normally not a fan of little children making guest vocals on jazz albums, but Jason melted my curmudgeonly heart; he has such a sweet little voice that his performance is impossible to resist.

Too bad I live on the West Coast; I’d love to catch these guys live.

The results: all four Guaraldi songs (20), but only three seasonal carols (“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “The Christmas Song” are missing, and so only 15 here), and no sign of “Für Elise” (0). The sequence is different (0), but Marcus loses points (-10) for the album title. Final score: 25 points.

Fairness demands that I also mention another 2009 release, although it barely fits the core parameter ... because it ain’t really jazz. A Peanuts Christmas was Zunior’s 2009 holiday album, an annual project that benefits the Toronto, Canada, Daily Bread Food Bank. Alt-music fans and folks who love to ferret out cutting-edge indie performers will adore this collection, which is heavy on electronics and all sorts of other, ah, inventive touches.

The album art is a smile, with its nightclub scene showing the Peanuts gang’s twentysomething selves: Sally bellying up to the bar, while Linus polishes glasses with his blanket; and waiter Charlie Brown bringing an order to Lucy, who is draped across Schroeder’s piano; while Snoopy snoozes beneath the large Christmas tree. Charles Schulz would have been horrified, of course, but it’s in good seasonal fun.

My occasional wincing aside, Wayne Petti’s handling of “What Child Is This” is quite lovely, and Dave Merritt and the Quiet Revolution have a lot of fun with “Linus and Lucy,” although I could have lived without the infant vocal inflections. The Awkward Stage contributes an unexpectedly moving vocal reading of “Christmas Time Is Here,” and the Violet Archers contribute a sweet reading of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

On the other hand, Mike O’Neill’s handling of “Skating” — a sort of dubba-dubba vocal scat — leaves much to be desired, as does Construction and Destruction’s “Greensleeves”; Ben Gunning rather destroys “Christmas Is Coming”; and Jill Barber’s cover of “The Christmas Song” sounds just fine ... until she begins to sing.

As for Ruth Minnikin’s approach to “Für Elise” ... don’t even ask.

The results: all four Guaraldi songs (20), all five seasonal carols (25) and “Für Elise” (25). Zunior follows Guaraldi’s album sequence precisely (50), and there’s no penalty for the album title. Final score: 120 points (sigh!).

Nashville-based pianist Lori Mechem joined the fun in 2011, with Christmas Is Coming: A Tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas (Green Hill Music GHD5705). Her album skips a few of Guaraldi’s shorter tracks — notably the children’s vocal on “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” — and supplements with one additional Peanuts theme and three more holiday standards. The result works best when Mechem resists the impulse to slavishly copy Guaraldi’s original charts; at times — as with her handling of “O Tannenbaum” and “Skating” — her keyboard flourishes are too close to Guaraldi’s work, down to some of his single-note affectations.

In most cases, though, Mechem’s own personality and style emerge, particularly in the improv-laden bridges for “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Is Coming.” And although she once again follows Guaraldi’s piano lead at the beginning of “My Little Drum,” her quartet — bassist Roger Spencer (Mechem’s husband), guitarist Andy Reiss and drummer Chris Brown — lays down a pleasant, samba-hued percussive backdrop that gives the song a fresh atmosphere.

The “extras” include a lovely, lyrical cover of “Snowfall”; a gentle arrangement of “Winter Wonderland,” with percussive sleigh bells elements; and a playful handling of “The Christmas Waltz,” which opens with a piano solo and then blossoms into a swinging toe-tapper that boasts solid work by the entire quartet.

Mechem previously recorded half a dozen of these tunes on her 2005 holiday album, Brazilian Christmas, but the instrumentation and arrangements are new here: more of a traditional jazz combo approach, with (thankfully!) no strings. Very pleasant listening.

The results: all four Guaraldi songs (20), but only four seasonal carols (“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is missing, and so only 20 here), and no sign of “Für Elise” (0). Because I’m making up the rules, I’m giving Mechem half-credit for sequence, because her first five tracks are identical to those on side A of Guaraldi’s album (25). And there’s no penalty for the album title. Final score: 65 points.

The Ornaments — Jen Gunderman, piano; James Haggerty, bass; and Martin Lynds, drums — also delivered their own brand of Guaraldiana in 2011: A Vince Guaraldi Christmas: Live at Middletree (Alderman Records), recorded a few days before Christmas in 2010, at Nashville’s Middletree Studio.

The listening experience is strongly familiar but not slavish, thanks to some additional instrumental shading by guests Pete Finney (guitar) and Jimmy Bowland (sax). Indeed, the disc’s best track — a sweet reading of “Christmas Time Is Here” — boasts the full quintet, and includes lovely solos on guitar, sax and bass, all not present in Guaraldi’s original arrangement.

A spirited run at “Skating” also benefits from Bowland’s deft sax bridge and Gunderman’s keyboard solo, and everybody gets a crack at “O Tannenbaum.” “My Little Drum” displays similar instrumental depth, thanks to Finney’s guitar comping.

You’ll smile at the familiar, if subtle echoes from the 1965 album: the gentle cymbal tap that concludes “Linus and Lucy,” and the cute piano filigree at the end of “O Tannenbaum.”

The mimicry isn’t entirely successful, however. “Christmas Is Coming” is a bit stiff, and not nearly as rousing as Guaraldi’s original; and the kid’s-vocal approach to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” — although authentic to how the song is performed in the TV special —doesn’t ring quite true here.

But these are minor quibbles. Since it’s impossible to catch Guaraldi and his trio at this distant remove, I’d happily book a date with The Ornaments. The group’s Peanuts-themed holiday concerts have become a Nashville tradition for the past several years; here’s one California kid who wishes they’d bring their act to the West Coast.

The results: all four Guaraldi songs (20), all five seasonal carols (25) and the oft-ignored “Für Elise” (25). Best of all, The Ornaments follow Guaraldi’s album sequence precisely (50), and there’s no penalty for the album title. Final score: a whopping 120 points!

Well. When it comes to delivering a true cover album, we have a tie between Zunior and The Ornaments. But when it comes to pleasant listening, The Ornaments win, hands down.

For now, anyway. Who knows what the future will bring?

[Note: All these reviews are extracted from my annual coverage of new holiday jazz, an increasingly lengthy feature I've been writing since the 1990s. If you've read this far and would like to have your egg nogged with a lot more swingin' seasonal music, check out this year's column here.]

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Publicity for my Guaraldi book went international on November 26, when I was included in a brief discussion of A Charlie Brown Christmas on Deutschlandfunk. The result is rather trippy; each time I began to talk, the first words are at regular volume, and then my voice dials back for a radio station voice-over in German. You can hear the 5-minute spot here, and read the transcript here ... assuming you read German, of course!

4 comments:

  1. Today I discovered that you, Derrick, wrote a biography about Vince: I just ordered the paperback @ amazon. And I'm here in my office, and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is playing on my laptop. On my iPod, this morning while coming to the office, I was listening to "Alma-Ville". I am glad that you wroth the biography, and I'm eager to read it. I do my best as I can to spread knowledge about Vince Guaraldi and his music - his piano play is divine.

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  2. "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "Alma-Ville" and my Guaraldi bio on its way to you ... Pasqualino, it sounds like you know how to celebrate the holiday season in style! Thanks for getting in touch, and be sure to investigate all the great information to be found at my various Guaraldi web pages; everything can be accessed from http://fivecentsplease.org/dpb/guaraldi.html
    Enjoy!

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  3. Interesting data on The Peter Gunn Theme, which was my favorite song our junior high band played. Ray Anthony actually had the only hit single of that theme, reaching number 8 in 1959, but I don't think he put out a full album based on that hit.

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  4. Indeed yes, Bob, and I'm grateful for the reminder. A bit of research revealed that Anthony's single enjoyed a robust 17 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, and I added a sentence to that effect above.

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