Full disclosure demands that I acknowledge Northern California jazz pianist Jim Martinez as a friend; I wrote the liner notes for this album, and one of the tracks is dedicated to my own self. (It won’t be hard to figure out which one.) So yes, I admit to bias ... but that doesn’t make what follows any less valid.
Guaraldi has been gone for almost 40 years, but his signature themes are more popular than ever; all manner of jazz musicians have covered the “big three” — “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time Is Here” — with more renditions popping up every year.
Martinez includes the first two on this album, which honors Guaraldi’s decisive musical influence on the neighborhood inhabited by Charlie Brown and the rest of Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts gang. But this isn’t a garden-variety collection of Guaraldi covers; eight of these 14 tracks are sparkling Martinez originals, all written and performed in Guaraldi’s larkish, Latinesque “Peanuts style.”
Martinez has Guaraldi’s facility for cute, clever melodic hooks that immediately sound familiar, even when heard for the first time. Better still, they’re catchy and instantly hummable, with the cheerful ebullience that always characterized Guaraldi’s performance style. You can’t help nodding in time to Martinez’s effervescent keyboard work; you also can’t help smiling.
He’s a generous leader, granting plenty of exposure to core band mates Josh Workman (guitar), Marcus Shelby (bass), and Tim Metz and Tony Savage, trading off on drums. Indeed, numerous tracks — such as Martinez’s “Chillin’ at the Warm Puppy Café” — feature engaging “duels” between Martinez and Workman, alternating vigorous solos and comping behind each other. (The title references the aptly named coffee shop adjacent to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California.)
Workman’s deft guitar work also highlights the gentle, Brazilian-hued “Samba for Snoopy,” and the flamenco elements of the impish “Spike and the Cactus Club,” with its shifting time signatures; one imagines Snoopy’s rail-thin brother dancing with a rose between his teeth.
Shelby’s accomplished bass work powers the percussive “Bang!,” which Martinez fills with Guaraldi-esque flourishes; Shelby’s walking bass also drives the sassy “Blues for Beagles,” which gets additional snap from Lucas Bere’s smoldering tenor sax.
The lyrical “Waltz for Vince” feels very much like the style and delivery of Guaraldi’s early Fantasy albums, while “Schroeder Can Play” is a spirited finger-snapper granted plenty of swing by both Martinez and Shelby.
The band’s cover of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is slightly faster than Guaraldi’s version, with Martinez roaring through the lengthy improv bridge. “Linus and Lucy” also is up-tempo, with Metz’s propulsive drum work setting the stage for an initially faithful (but not slavish) adaptation that breaks away when Martinez takes the second bridge into entirely new directions. Guaraldi’s lively “Surfin’ Snoopy” is treated like a classic combo swinger, with Savage and Shelby setting the stage for vigorous solos by Bere, Workman and finally Martinez.
Martinez is equally adept at softer tempos, as with his worshipful handling of Guaraldi’s “Theme to Grace,” an interior theme from the Jazz Mass Guaraldi wrote for San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in the mid-1960s. Workman and Martinez trade quiet, reverential solos in a manner evoking the latter’s numerous “Jazz Praise” albums. Similarly, Martinez’s “Thank You Sparky” is a hushed, heartfelt lament, with his keyboard backed solely by violin.
The album includes one vocal: a tender cover of Rod McKuen’s poignant title song to the 1969 film A Boy Named Charlie Brown, with Margie Rebekah Ruiz’s expressively soulful voice accompanied by Bere’s equally sweet sax solo and a string quartet.
The album is highlighted both by everybody’s tight solo and ensemble work, and by Martinez’s overall impish tone. Most of his original compositions are droll to begin with, and he enhances that exuberance with occasional quotes from sources as varied as Gershwin, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Guaraldi himself.
This album’s dexterous musicality certainly is a selling point, but — most of all — it’s fun. As with Guaraldi’s many albums, you can’t help wanting to play this one again ... and again and again.
So, what are you waiting for?