Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas [Fantasy Records F-8431, LP, 1988 reissue. Originally released by Fantasy in 1965.]
Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas seems to be the most universally beloved Christmas album of all time. It’s certainly my personal favorite Christmas album. I’ve heard it remarked many times over the years – even as recently as yesterday – that if you can only own one Christmas album, then this should be the one. I agree wholeheartedly. People that don’t even like Christmas music love this album. This album is the antidote to all the poisonously awful Christmas music you might have ever had the displeasure of hearing.
There are many reasons why this album has become so endeared to so many people through the years. Being connected with the beloved Christmas television special featuring the immensely popular “Peanuts” comic strip characters is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ll bet many of you reading this grew up looking forward to watching this show every year just as I did. Another crucial aspect of this album’s long-standing popularity comes from how Vince Guaraldi’s brilliant original jazz compositions and his arrangements of traditional Christmas tunes perfectly captured the spirit of the television show for which they were written. And I wouldn’t overlook just how well these tunes were played by Guaraldi on piano along with his trio mates on bass and drums. There’s a certain something about their sweetly swinging instrumental interplay that’s a joy to listen to. It’s fantastic, unpretentious musicianship. Much has been said about how audiences both young and old dig the West Coast cool jazz sound that the album exudes, even if they may not typically be fans of jazz music. And this album was recorded really well; it has always had a warm-spirited sound to it, which is no surprise since it was produced by Fantasy Records, a label known for its very fine jazz recordings.
I also think the magical mixture of several traditional Christmas carols, a modern Christmas pop song, a well-known classical music piece and Guaraldi’s spritely original compositions is another part of why this may be the perfect Christmas album. It has a little bit of everything. The traditional numbers, save for the straightly played Beethoven bit, are made fresh and new by Guaraldi’s inspired arrangements. Any version of “O Tannenbaum” will forever be compared to Guaraldi’s, which so beautifully lights up that old German carol. His new compositions are equally inventive and memorable. We can all attest to how the swinging ebullience of “Linus and Lucy” paints a perfect picture of the Peanuts gang. “Skating” evokes winter wonder without being strictly “Christmas-y.” Nothing is overblown or sappy or dumbed down on this album. It’s simply wonderful all the way through.
And this album also has what is perhaps my very favorite Christmas song of all, “Christmas Time Is Here.” It’s just a lovely song that never gets old. It kind of captures the spirit of the whole album in miniature: it has a marvelous and memorable melody along with a variety of wonderful images of Christmas – children and cheer, snowflakes, carols, love and dreams, sleigh bells and beauty, joyful memories and families. And it has a nicely meditative, quiet quality to it that embodies the Christmas spirit for me. It’s a song that’s close to my heart. In fact, when my children were a bit younger, I would sing it nightly (as best I could) for one of their bedtime lullabies during the Christmas season. Who knows, but if they’re sleepy enough and the house is quiet enough, I still might be known to serenade them with it on some cold wintry eves.
There’s plenty of fascinating background material out there about the making of this album and its subsequent place in our collective consciousness. Read the liner notes written by *San Francisco Chronicle* jazz music writer Ralph J. Gleason on the back cover of the 1988 reissue version of the album.
And definitely check out this informative appreciation of the album written by Vince Guaraldi aficionado Derrick Bang. (Note that this links to a PDF version of the essay.) This was written upon the occasion of the album being added to the prestigious National Recording Registry operated by the Library of Congress. In the piece, Mr. Bang writes about how the show’s producer Lee Mendelson happened upon Vince Guaraldi to write the music, how Mendelson wrote the lyrics for “Christmas Time Is Here” himself and much more. It’s a fun read.
Those record collectors among us can dig through Derrick Bang’s exhaustive look at the release history of the album, including some interesting notes about the mystery of the side-men who made up Guaraldi’s trio. (Different players recorded the tracks used for the TV show and the album, oddly enough!)
And here’s a nice 7 minute audio story from the Studio 360 radio show about the album, featuring reminiscences by some of those involved with its creation.
Don’t forget to learn more about the cool jazzman himself at the official Vince Guaraldi website. He made some other really great albums; I’d highly suggest listening to his classic Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus containing his well-known piece “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”
Give “Christmas Time Is Here” a listen.
“Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year…”