Saturday, December 14, 2019

The sincerest form of flattery: 2019 update

This post originally appeared back in December 2012, and was updated in 2016. Although it deserves a fresh update this year — thanks to two new entries — adding to the original post wouldn't call attention to the enhanced information; there's also no reason newer readers would know anything about it. Ergo, a "repeat performance" with additional material. Enjoy!


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. Manne & His Men returned to the well in 1967, with the outré Jazz Gunn (a little too far out for my taste, but that's just one vote).

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

It’s 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 as time has passed.

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.


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Stocking stuffers

We’ve an embarrassment of holiday-themed riches this month, starting with not just one, but two terrific big band covers of the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Richmond, Virginia, is blessed with a full-blown swing band fronted by bassist/arranger Andrew Randazzo, which performs as the R4nd4zzo Big Band. The 15-piece unit boasts four trumpets, three trombones, four reeds and a rhythm section of keyboards (Jacob Ungerleider), guitar (Alan Parker), bass (Randazzo) and drums (DJ Harrison). The ensemble presented a swinging tribute to Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas to a packed house at Richmond’s Vagabond on December 18, 2017; the performance was recorded and released as a Bandcamp digital album a month later.

Can’t imagine why it took so long for me to find it; this album definitely shouldn’t be missed.

Aside from his inventive arrangements, Randazzo also has a cheeky sense of humor; the classic holiday tunes and Guaraldi originals have been given fresh titles that occasionally require a bit of thought … such as “SK8N,” which features unison brass on the familiar melody, following Randazzo’s tasty solo bass introduction. The pace picks up, with Toby Whitaker and JC Kuhl delivering cool solos on (respectively) bass trombone and baritone sax.

The set actually kicks off with “Tannenbomb,” which begins in gentle Guaraldi fashion; the full band then sets a mid-tempo pace for sleek solos on piano and brass, against Randazzo’s bass comping. The ensemble returns to the melody and then concludes with a double-time burst of speed. The mid-tempo “Drum Closet” (“My Little Drum”) is dominated by groovy rolling percussion, the melody taken by brass against Parker’s guitar comping. Parker similarly dominates the melody in a thoughtful cover of “Black Friday” (“Christmas Time Is Here”), and he also gets plenty of exposure — notably during a lengthy bridge solo — in “Whose Baby Is This!?”

A few arrangements may challenge Guaraldi purists, starting with an unusually contemplative, mid-tempo reading of “Linus, Single Again,” dominated by Ungerleider’s sweet piano solo and some cool rhythm work. But the stand-out, for exploratory ambition, is “Xmas on a Thursday,” a deconstructed handling of “Christmas Is Coming,” dominated by funky bass and percussion, a barely recognized melody in a minor key, and an acid rock electric guitar solo that soars into outer space … after which the track concludes with a traditional solo piano reading of “Fur Elise.” Far out, man!

The set finishes with a gentle reading of “Chestnuts,” featuring guest vocalist Roger Carroll; Randazzo’s acoustic bass solo at the bridge is particularly lush, backed by unison brass comping. The horns takes over the melody when Carroll returns to croon the iconic tune to a close. At which point, a very good time clearly has been had by all.

(One minor issue: I rather doubt Peanuts Worldwide, Fantasy/Concord and all others concerned would be pleased by this set’s digital album cover!)