Thursday, May 22, 2014

Swingin' singles

Life brings constant surprises.

That's a good thing; it would be terrible to wake one morning, realizing that the world offered no more mysteries, no more unexpected answers.

Discovery is one of life's many spices.

Happily, I continue to discover new wonders about Guaraldi's life and recorded output. Some things come my way via helpful correspondents; other items wander across my path entirely by accident, usually while I'm seeking additional sources for some other piece of information.

Two recent finds, then: both concerning Guaraldi's recordings on 45 singles.

By now, we all know the story about how "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" was "discovered" by Tony Bigg, a DJ at KROY 1240 AM, in Sacramento, California. Having received a copy of Fantasy's single for Guaraldi's album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, Bigg played and enjoyed the A-side selection, "Samba de Orpheus." But he was totally knocked out by the B-side song, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," and played it as often as possible. He very likely sparked public awareness of the song, which quickly spread throughout the Golden State, and then the rest of the country, eventually earning Guaraldi a Grammy Award.

Okay, that's familiar history.

But here's my fresh question: Might Bigg have been playing a red vinyl 45?

It's also well-known that — during the label's early years — Fantasy Records got considerable mileage from its gimmick of issuing LPs on colored vinyl, generally red or blue. Old news.

Until a few weeks ago, however, I'd never heard of — let alone seen, or been lucky enough to own — a colored vinyl single.

And yet here it is, thanks to a recent eBay auction.

Fascinating, eh?

The question now is whether only promotional 45s were issued on red vinyl, and perhaps only the first printing of same. That seems logical, and they're certainly rare; standard singles of "Samba" and "Fate" are as common as blades of grass, and they pop up all over the place. This red one, though, is something truly special.

And it begs a question: Were any of Guaraldi's other Fantasy 45s released on colored vinyl?

I suspect not. Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus was the last Guaraldi LP originally released on colored vinyl — red (mono) and blue (stereo) — and Fantasy discontinued this practice shortly thereafter. In other words, all of Guaraldi's subsequent 45s were attached to LPs issued solely on standard black vinyl, so the singles would have been pressed the same way, also on black vinyl.

That was the first surprise.

Within a few days of my obtaining this little treasure, I learned about the existence of another hitherto-unknown Guaraldi 45, this one derived from the "storybook LP" released as a soundtrack, of sorts, for the 1969 big-screen film A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Guaraldi's isolated score for this film remains a major unreleased item in the soundtrack world, a sad and frustrating story I detailed at great length in an earlier post.

To my knowledge, however, Columbia Records never released a single from this LP ... at least, not in the United States.

During a routine perusal of the Guaraldi titles referenced at the very handy Discogs site, I unexpectedly came across a listing for a French single (CBS 5399), released in 1970. The gatefold-style packaging is quite attractive, as you can see from the images here. The A-side contains Rod McKuen's title song, while the B-side is unusual for its presentation of two tracks: short versions of McKuen's "Champion Charlie Brown" and Guaraldi's "Snoopy on Ice" (actually "Skating").

Granted, Guaraldi's contribution runs a scant 95 seconds, but that's still enough for this disc to qualify for inclusion in Dr. Funk's library of 45s.

Assuming you can find one. As these words are typed, the aforementioned Discogs entry lists 10 people who'd like to find this little disc, while also showing the disheartening word "never" under "Last sold." I therefore suspect that finding a copy of this puppy might be even harder than landing "Fate" on red vinyl.

But — as I said above — what fun would life be, if we didn't have things to desire, and search for ... awaiting that golden moment of triumph, when...

Sigh. If only, right?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dr. Funk's first Golden Anniversary disc

Guaraldi fans have two new items to put on their wish lists ... assuming said fans haven't already picked 'em up.

On Tuesday, May 13, the Concord Music Group unveiled 50th anniversary editions of Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, in two states: a CD newly re-mastered by engineer Joe Tarantino; and a collector's-edition LP that reproduces the original 1964 "gatefold" packaging, along with all its contents.

The CD features the original album's nine tracks, along with the bonus track of "Fly Me to the Moon," added when the album went digital back in the 1980s. Additionally, we get one more bonus track, new to this release: an alternate take of "Baseball Theme." The 16-page booklet has a reversable cover, so you can view either a reproduction of the aforementioned gatefold LP cover -- when the album's full title was Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown -- or the later cover that most people recognize. Perhaps in a nod to historical accuracy, the latter CD cover now only identifies this as "The original sound track recording," and leaves off the second half of the phrase ("of the CBS television special") ... which makes sense, since the documentary for which this score was composed, never aired on TV at all.

The disc is rather drolly designed to resemble a baseball, complete with stitching; the booklet and cover/interior page are laden with artwork taken from the 12 Charles M. Schulz "collectible lithographs of Peanuts characters" included in the 1964 gatefold edition. (Indeed, the CD cover art is taken from one of those 12 lithographs, shown above.) The booklet includes the original LP notes by both director/producer Lee Mendelson and jazz historian Ralph Gleeson, along with a new 1,900-word essay by my own self.

The collectible LP reproduces the original 1964 gatefold edition as accurately as possible, with one major change: This anniversary edition is pressed onto orange vinyl, in a nod toward Fantasy's original gimmick of releasing its LPs on colored vinyl (usually red or blue). From the outside, the gatefold package looks just as it did 50 years ago, up to and including the list -- on the back -- of "Other Fantasy albums of interest": eight titles, complete with their original Fantasy mono and stereo catalog numbers.

(This list undoubtedly was responsible for one of the common errors that has plagued many careless Guaraldi discographies. At first blush, these eight LPs appear to belong to Guaraldi, but that isn't true; two of them are Bola Sete albums ... and I've frequently found one of those, Tour de Force, incorrectly assigned to Guaraldi. Tsk-tsk!)

I note only one difference, between the front and back cover art of this 50th anniversary gatefold and my 1964 original: The latter lists the Fantasy catalog numbers for both the mono and stereo versions at the upper left of the front cover, while the anniversary edition cites only the stereo release.

The LP itself divides the original nine songs between the two sides in the same sequence, reproducing the spelling error present back in 1964: The little girl with the "naturally curly hair" is Frieda, not Freda. But a new mistake has crept in, as well: "Freda [sic] (With the Naturally Curly Hair)" is Side B's final track, as always has been the case. But Side B has only four tracks, yet this anniversary disc identifies that tune as Track 5 ... having skipped the number 4. (Oopsie!)

The LP is made from a fresh (new) master derived from the original analog tapes (as opposed to the CD re-master). The LP has no bonus tracks.

Lee Mendelson and Ralph Gleason's essays occupy the interior gatefold panels. As before, the sidemen remain uncredited. And no, my new essay isn't part of this LP, which makes sense, since it obviously wasn't part of the 1964 package.

The 12 Schulz lithographs are almost identical in size and content, including the original 1964 copyright assigned to "United Features Syndicate Inc., N.Y.C." But there are slight changes, reflecting a half-century difference between graphic reproduction. The paper stock is different; the 1964 lithos are on slightly shiny paper, which reflect any light sources. The new lithos also are roughly an eighth of an inch shorter horizontally, which -- depending on the image -- results in some artwork being chopped off one side or the other. 

Some of the colors are slightly different, generally slightly darker, and most visibly with the blues; the new blues are more "true." In the iconic pose of Charlie Brown on the pitcher's mound, for example, the sky behind him now looks more accurate, whereas the sky color in the 1964 counterpart is more of an aquamarine blue. Schroeder's piano is a slightly darker orange in the new litho; the background purples (floor and wall) in that image also are a bit darker. Snoopy's brown baseball glove, in the new litho, has the faint moiré pattern cross-hatching that one gets when scanning a halftone-screen image. Sharp-eyed folks also will notice that the new images, in some cases, omit just a touch of the artwork from the originals. In one litho, shown above, Linus stands in the ball field, next to a tree; the top of the tree extends out of the image, and the original has a little bit more "crown" than the new version. 

Mind you, these are all very minor distinctions, reported here simply for the sake of comparison. Nobody will care, and in fact I prefer the new paper stock because it's doesn't glare.

All in all, they're impressive packages — LP and CD — and, given the effort that went into both, I'm now quite curious to see what Concord will do next year, to similarly honor the 50th anniversary of the score for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Friday, May 2, 2014

A rose by any other name ... is mis-identified

The Internet giveth, and it also taketh away.

I've previous ranted about Wikipedia's pernicious role in the publication and subsequent spread of misinformation, and the sad fact that such bogus data becomes, well, permanent. All those countless little Internet spiders race about the Web, scraping up and distributing facts and figures, with no means of separating the well-researched thesis of an Einstein from the rants of a Flat-Earther.

But I'm not here to grouse anew about Wikipedia; that topic has been covered.

No, this post concerns a highly disturbing incident that points to yet another means by which bad information is becoming eternal.

The story starts with the 2011 CD An Afternoon with the Vince Guaraldi Quartet, which cherry-picked some of the best tracks from numerous live recordings Guaraldi made himself, during a two-week gig in October 1967, at the Old Town Mall in Los Gatos, California. I was consulted briefly about the various options, which included a "mystery track" that I've never been able to identify; it sounds familiar, like a pop tune from the day, but that nagging sense of possible recognition could simply point to Guaraldi's facility for accessible original compositions: You think you've heard them before, even when you haven't.

Anyway, I advised against using that track, for obvious reasons; it would look a bit silly to label a song "We don't know what this cue is, but we included it anyway, because we really like it." No matter how good the track is.

Well, due to a production slip-up, the mystery track was mixed up with a dynamite cover of "Autumn Leaves," and the former wound up on the CD ... mis-identified as the latter.

Okay, so I initially rolled my eyes, but then realized that this error had an upside: Now it's easy to share this mystery track with avid Guaraldi fans and mainstream music buffs, in the hopes of one day identifying the silly thing.

Well, that was three years ago ... and I'm still sharing. Most recently, I gave the disc to journalist, music scholar and local radio host Bill Buchanan, who has interviewed me several times on KDRT; you can check out his weekly shows here. I supplied the usual explanation, and he promised to listen carefully and do his best.

I saw him again just last week, and he related what initially seemed an amusing little anecdote ... until its implications sank in. He had faithfully played the mystery track, repeatedly, with much the reaction I've had; the tune sounded familiar to him, but not familiar enough that he could place it. During this process, his daughter wandered into the room; she asked what he was doing, and he explained. She whipped out her smart phone and, before he could stop her, found and activated the Shazam song ID app.

"That's easy," she told him, after just a few seconds. "It's 'Autumn Leaves.' "

Bill paused, awaiting my reaction. I must confess, I initially smiled and shook my head ... but then the smile evaporated.

"Oh, no," I said. 

Bill nodded, and he wasn't smiling either.

I came home, snatched up my wife's iPod Touch and repeated the experiment, also with Shazam. Same result. I switched over to Soundhound, another song ID app. After less than 15 seconds, I again had the same result: "Autumn Leaves."

Which isn't true, of course.

But how are the Shazam and Soundhound services to know? Or any other, similar, apps that spring up? Their aggregate data is supplied by CD producers and distributors, who are responsible for such mistakes in the first place. And even if we assume that such tasks fall to interns or other lower-echelon employees, such citizens can't be blamed for passing along bad data; in many cases, they likely wouldn't know the music well enough to perceive the error in the first place.

But you can see the result: Every new generation, moving forward from this early 21st century moment, will have access to "authoritative" sources that claim "Autumn Leaves" is something that it isn't. At best, their numbers will equal the music buffs who know darn well what the actual jazz standard sounds like.

It gets worse, because this situation isn't confined to this one CD. Liner notes errors aren't common, thank goodness, but they do occur. Indeed, other examples can be found in Guaraldi's own discography. The 1998 Fantasy release, Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits, opens with a track that is identified as "Joe Cool" ... but it isn't. Peanuts fans and the Guaraldi faithful are very familiar with Dr. Funk's growling vocal on the song written for Snoopy's sunglass-wearing alter ego, and it absolutely ain't the first track on this album.

But both Shazam and Soundhound immediately identify it as "Joe Cool." Ye gods...

(For the record, the track in question is something else I've yet to identify; my latest working theory is that it may not even be Guaraldi's work, but instead an underscore track from an episode of The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, produced several years after he died. I've yet to test that possibility by carefully listening to all 18 episodes.)

Even if subsequent re-issues of these two CDs correct the liner notes info, it's highly unlikely that the updated information will make it to these Internet-based song ID apps. No, these errors are forever, along with similar errors resulting from incorrect liner note information on who knows how many other albums Out There, and the misinformation will continue to spread. Long after I'm gone, and no longer able to make these woefully inadequate attempts to set the record straight, people will wonder why Guaraldi quite oddly assigned the same song title to two entirely different tunes.

And jazz fans will find themselves in frustrating arguments with less-informed friends and colleagues, who'll hold up their gadget of the moment, saying, "But of course this is 'Autumn Leaves' ... I just identified it as such!"

Good grief!