Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Christmas tributes galore!

Goodness; this year's roster of seasonal tribute performances of Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas grew and grew and grew, after the initial November 15 post.
By droll coincidence, three of the groups have released their efforts on CDs or downloadable singles this year, starting with the New England-based Eric Byrd Trio. Byrd, a veteran jazz pianist, has performed professionally for more than three decades, and has shared a stage with Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Randy Brecker, Warren Wolf, Charlie Byrd and numerous other jazz luminaries. He and his longtime trio — acoustic bassist Bhagwan Khalsa, and drummer/percussionist Alphonso Young Jr. — got into the Guaraldi holiday gig quite early; their first cover album came out back in 2009.

That was a studio production; their new release — Charlie Brown Live — was recorded last December 18 and 19 at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster, Maryland. The seven-track compilation is a solid, mainstream jazz affair, with the familiar melodies peppered with plenty of aggressive improv solos. Happily, audience applause and ambient noise never intrude (as often is the case with live recordings).
Byrd opens the album with Guaraldi’s signature solo keyboard introduction to “O Tannenbaum”; the arrangement slides into gentle mid-tempo jazz as the sidemen join the fun. Byrd’s forceful keyboard solo is followed by a contemplative bass solo and a few tasty drum solos, before the trio slides back into the melody; it’s a nice showcase for all three players.
“Linus and Lucy” boasts sassy keyboard work on the first bridge, and a truly wild ride up and down the keyboard during the second; Khalsa’s walking bass comping is equally solid. Noodly solo piano eventually slides into a bold reading of “What Child Is This,” which trades off between the familiar melody and heavy chord improv and hard-hitting drum work. “My Little Drum” opens with a lengthy quote from the hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter,” after which Byrd slides into an upper-octave arrangement of the melody; he pauses for Khalsa’s tasty bass solo, which yields to (of course!) some powerful drum work.
The album closer, “Christmas Is Coming,” is a lot of fun; it opens with a heavy beat, sashays into a swing-time bridge and then a raucous piano solo and equally tasty improv on bass and drums. The tune concludes with some playoff music, as Byrd introduces his band mates: a playful finale to a brief but impressively dynamic set. Both this and the 2009 album are available via his website.
The Chicago-based Michael “Mich” Shirey is a relative newcomer; I began tracking his activities in 2018. Imitation being the death of freshness, over time I’ve been drawn to musicians who treat Guaraldi’s beloved arrangements as a springboard, rather than a stencil … and I’ve been particularly impressed by those who do so with a different instrumental configuration.

Mich’s lead instrument is a guitar, rather than a piano. Adapting the sound and swing of 88-note keyboard jazz to a stringed instrument is no small task, and the results aren’t always pleasant to the ear. (I speak from listening experience.) I’m pleased to say that Mich’s efforts on Guitar for Guaraldi are lovely. He’s ably accompanied by Nick Fane (upright bass) and Dave Brandwein (drums). Their interplay is solid, and I’m particularly impressed by Nick’s comping and counterpoint throughout the entire album. Dave never indulges in flash, like so many drummers; he’s content to supply the mellow backdrop these songs demand. And his timing is tight. 
As with the original soundtrack, this album opens with a lovely reading of “O Tannenbaum”: the one track with strong echoes of Guaraldi’s arrangement. Mich solos the meditative introduction; the tempo picks up as his mates enter after close to a minute. Mich and Nick take cool solos at the bridge, and then bring the tune home. Nick’s thoughtful bass improv highlights the sweetly sensitive reading of “Christmas Time Is Here,” and Mich’s hard-charging improv bridge adds plenty of spice to “Great Pumpkin Waltz” (long one of my favorite Guaraldi melodies).
Mich’s talent shines on his handling of “Linus and Lucy,” where you’ll notice he simultaneously plays the bass vamp and melody: no small feat! He’s equally adept with the Mount Olympus of Guaraldi challenges: the opening descent of “Skating,” which is every bit as effervescent here (and Mich impishly tosses in a brief quote from “Frosty, the Snowman”).
Dave sets a sassy bossa beat for “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which is a showcase for Nick; he takes the melody and also offers a sleek improv bridge, with Mich deftly comping alongside. The mood remains feisty during a bossa/rock handling of “Christmas Is Coming,” which boasts plenty of lively walking bass. 
The trio closes with a traditional reading of “The Christmas Song”: no solos, no improv, just a quietly sentimental blend of guitar and bass, backed by Dave’s soft brushes. A lovely way to conclude a lovely album. It can be purchased via Bandcamp.
Moving now across the pond, pianist/composer Jason Frederick is quite the busy fellow. He’s heavily involved in film and television scoring, with credits that include 101 Dalmatians 2, Bela Lugosi: The Forgotten King and Slacker Cats. As head of the aptly named Jason Frederick Cinematic Sound, he issued Mods and Coppers, a way-cool 2015 album that features inventive covers of title themes from crime, spy and secret agent films and TV shows such as The Thomas Crown Affair, Ironside, Bullitt, Dirty Harry and many more. (He has long promised a sequel to that album, but other projects keep getting in the way.)

At this time of each year, he also fronts a smaller combo — the Jason Frederick Cinematic Trio, with Greg Hagger (bass) and Dan Mullins (drums) — for concerts devoted to Vince Guaraldi’s music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. In that vein, Frederick has just issued the first three tracks from an ongoing project cheekily dubbed The Charlie Brown Experiment. Get ready, because his approach is completely unique.
“The real charm of Guaraldi’s music for me, apart from its obvious brilliance in composition and playing,” he explains, “is the lovely sort of ‘lo-fi’ quality of it. So our tribute to him is in the spirit of the great 1960s arrangers such as Roland Shaw, Geoff Love, Billy May and others who did ‘sort of faithful’ but slightly ‘alternative’ versions of music from the James Bond films, Mission: Impossible, and so forth. We used good mics, cheap mics and old mics, in an effort to make something as vintage-sounding as possible.”
Indeed, “Linus and Lucy” opens with audience applause and an echo effect that makes Frederick’s keyboard attack unexpectedly dynamic. Percussive clapping backs the first bridge, and bits of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” are woven into the tune, as the band slides into the second, swing bridge. The melody returns via a key change, and draws to a breathless finale after a false stop.
“Skating” begins with the simulated needle drop and “fuzz” one would expect of a 45 single; the melody emerges faintly in a distant “tinny” mode, as though we’re listening via the single tiny speaker of a 1960s-era hand-held portable radio. Frederick then kicks the tune into high gear, with his cool keyboard work backed by an aggressive percussion vamp. The melody returns for what one expects will be a finale, but then switches back to the tinny speaker as the band weaves in a brief quote from “Joy to the World.”
The final track, an impish mash-up of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” against the “Linus and Lucy” bass vamp, is totally fun: laden with chimes, inventive keyboard filigrees and more hand-clapping during a lively improv bridge.
The tracks are available via Bandcamp

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