Monday, December 18, 2023

Guaraldi cover albums: a new annual tradition?

As my previous post demonstrates, Guaraldi's music for A Charlie Brown Christmas has become a popular seasonal gig for jazz combos across the country — and in Canada and the UK — who perform in bars, restaurants, concert halls, wineries and pretty much anywhere they can find a stage.

Some of these musicians aren't content to stop with live performances; they're also releasing albums!

Two landed last December (and shame on me, for not calling attention to them here, at the time).

The Music of A Charlie Brown Christmas came from San Antonio-based pianist Doc Watkins, backed by bassist Franklin Skaggs, drummer Ryan Shaw, and an impressively large ensemble. For the past several years, Watkins and his orchestra have presented this program live during most of December, at San Antonio’s JazzTX. (Makes me want to take a quick trip to Texas!)
Purists probably will insist that these 10 tracks aren't jazz; the often string-enhanced arrangements hue more closely to what you’d expect from the Boston Pops or a lavish Broadway musical. That’s particularly true with mellow readings of “The Christmas Song,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Skating,” the latter blended with “The Christmas Waltz” (which gives Watkins a chance to demonstrate his vocal chops).

Watkins gets bonus points for covering all of Guaraldi's album, including a sparkling arrangement of “Fur Elise” that opens with Beethoven-esque solo piano, and then kicks into high gear with Shaw’s jump jazz drums and tasty big band swing. 

Those seeking more of the pizzazz that Guaraldi put into that iconic Peanuts TV special probably will prefer the Nate Hance Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas NHanced. (Cute title, that.) Hance, on piano, is a generous leader; several of these 11 tracks run long enough to grant tasty solos by bassist Keith Yanes and drummer Lars Johnson.

The album opens (as it should) with “O Tannenbaum”; Hance’s solo introduction hearkens back to Guaraldi’s arrangement, but with a bit more “sauce.” The tune quickly kicks into swing time, and Hance’s lyrical improv bridge is backed by sleek walking bass. Yanes then takes a solo with echoes of the familiar melody, after which Hance and Johnson indulge in some playful drums/piano call and response.

Hance doesn't cover Guaraldi's entire album; "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Fur Elise" are absent. In their place, he solos on both a slightly deconstructed arrangement of “Peppermint Patty,” and an initially gentle reading of “Schroeder,” which turns majestic as it rolls into an upper-octave finale.
The album concludes with a delightfully funky run at “Linus and Lucy,” which Johnson sets up with a captivating beat. Hance doesn’t mess with the main theme, but his first keyboard bridge is positively sassy; the second is even more ferocious, after which the trio brings the tune home.

Moving on to this season's new releases...

As its title suggests, rising jazz pianist Isaiah J. Thompson’s A Guaraldi Holiday isn’t entirely devoted to Christmas; Halloween and Thanksgiving also are acknowledged by this album’s 12 tracks. (Bonus point to Thompson for covering "Heartburn Waltz," one of Guaraldi's lesser-known themes.) Thompson is joined by Anthony Hervey, trumpet; Julian Lee, tenor sax; Alexa Tarantino, alto sax and flute; John Pizzarelli, guitar; Philip Norris, bass; and Kyle Poole, drums and percussion. The liner notes make a point of mentioning that — aside from Pizzarelli — all the musicians are under 30. (Remarkable, isn’t it, that so many young jazz artists are captivated by Guaraldi?)

Thompson’s approach varies. At times his arrangements definitely evoke Guaraldi’s touch and spirit; other tracks employ brief bits of a familiar melody merely as a springboard for complex jazz more in the hard bop vein of Thompson’s previous album, The Power of the Spirit

The latter is particularly true of “Thanksgiving Theme,” which begins with gentle piano against Hervey’s brass touches, followed by a thoughtful sax solo. But then Thompson sprints all over the keyboard during a lengthy bridge, the arrangement getting more aggressive with brass filigrees, vibrant sax and Poole’s drum work. 

The full track list:

• "Great Pumpkin Waltz"
• "Charlie Brown Theme"
• "Thanksgiving Theme"
• "Little Birdie"
• "O Tannenbaum"
• "Christmas Is Coming"
• "The Christmas Song"
• "What Child Is This"
• "Auld Lang Syne"
• "Heartburn Waltz"
• "Linus and Lucy"

The kick-ass reading of “Linus and Lucy” begins as sax handles the core melody, with Thompson adding an ascending four-chord run at the end of each line. The first bridge is a spirited blend of sax and piano; a lengthy sax solo segues to the second bridge, which shifts to swing time and boasts more of Norris’ cool walking bass: a great finale to a truly pleasurable album.

During the past decade, jazz pianist Ron LeGault has turned his Charlie Brown Goes to the Nutcracker show into an annual tradition that sells out performances at the Hotel St. Julien in Boulder, Colorado. An album was an obvious next step, and the just-released Charlie Brown Goes to The Nutcracker finds him alongside Andrew Vogt, tenor and baritone sax, flute and clarinet; Curtis Fox, trombone; Dave Weinand, bass and bass clarinet; and Andreas Schmid, drums.

Given that title, it's no surprise that LeGault touches only briefly on Guaraldi's music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, with "Skating," "Linus and Lucy" and "Christmas Is Coming."

The album opens with “Surfin’ Snoopy,” a fast-paced romp with a conventional combo arrangement that grants brief solos to each performer in turn. It's followed by a whimsical, mid-tempo reading of “Charlie Brown Theme,” which cleverly trades the melody between keyboard and Fox’s wah-wah trombone, deliberately sounding like the wordless adults in Peanuts TV specials.

The full track list:

• "Surfin' Snoopy"
• "Charlie Brown Theme"
• "Troika" (a blend of Tchiakovsky and Guaraldi)
• "Overture"
• "Skating"
• "Dance of the Reed Flutes"
• "Cool Bells Jingle"
• "You're a Mean one, Mr. Grinch"
• "Pebble Beach"
• "Happiness Theme"
• "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy"
• "Linus and Lucy"
• "Waltz of the Flowers"
• "Christmas Is Coming"

The arrangement of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is a hoot, with Weinand’s bass clarinet dominating the melody against heavy 2/2 percussion. 

Guitarist Peter Sprague's Christmas Time Is Here, finally, covers most of Guaraldi's album; Sprague's approach is equal parts jazz, pop and New Age. He's joined by Tripp Sprague, sax and flute; Beth Ross Buckley, flute; Danny Green, piano; Mack Leighton, bass; and Duncan Moore, drums. Allison Adams Tucker supplies vocals or vocalese on most tracks.

The album opens with "Charlie's Overture," a clever mash-up of "Linus and Lucy," "Christmas Time Is Here," "Christmas Is Coming" and "Skating." The jazz highlights are a lengthy arrangement of "O Tannenbaum," which opens with Guaraldi-esque piano/bass/drums, then expands to include tasty solos on sax and guitar. "Linus and Lucy" gets even grander treatment. It also begins conventionally, on piano/bass/drums; Sprague's guitar sneaks in during the second bridge, and then the tune opens up to include another nice sax solo.

And I must say: This album includes the most unusual arrangement of "Christmas Is Coming" that I've ever heard!

The full track list:

• "Charlie's Overture"
• "O Tannenbaum"
• "What Child Is This"
• "Linus and Lucy"
• "Christmas Time Is Here"
• "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing"
• "Christmas Is Love" (an original by Peter Sprague and Randy Phillips)
• "Christmas Is Coming"
• "The Christmas Song"
• "Winter Wonderland"

(Readers who enjoy holiday jazz in general should check out my annual surveys of new releases. The 2023 edition has just gone live here.)


Mention also must be made of Jason Frederick, hailing from across the pond; his UK-based "Cinematic Trio" has been oh-so-slowly releasing ingeniously arranged covers of Guaraldi tracks, roughly at the rate of one per year, since 2021. Thus far he has delivered "Skating" and "Linus and Lucy," and he just added a great mash-up of "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Silent Night."

(In a non-Guaraldi — but still holiday — mode, he also has delivered a tasty handling of Paul McCarney's "Wonderful Christmastime.")

You'll find them at Bandcamp.


Further on the subject of Guaraldi covers, saxophonist Claudio Giambruno's new album, Overseas, includes a cool reading of "Ginza Samba." His quartet includes Andrea Rea, piano; Dario Rosciglione, double bass; and Amedeo Ariano, drums.

It's also available via Bandcamp (and other online outlets). 

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