Holidays with Vince Guaraldi

Few musicians have had a diverse career reduced to a singularity quite like Vince Guaraldi.

As any cocktail pianist can attest, the drunken patron who leans against the piano will order, “Play ‘Peanuts!’” or “Play ‘Snoopy!'” or “Play ‘Charlie Brown!'” It almost takes a connoisseur to know that the piece is really called “Linus and Lucy.”

There’s other familiar music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, of course. “Christmas Time is Here” is a very good song indeed, and even “Skating” (rolling thirds in waltz-time) gets heard as background music at this time of year.

Still, “Linus and Lucy” is the headliner.

The other contender for Guaraldi’s “best” is the moody “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” a bit hit from three years before the television special. In fact, “Cast Your Fate” was the reason Guaraldi was hired for Charlie Brown.

In terms of the jazz language, “Cast Your Fate” is more influential, as the simple but effective techniques Guaraldi pioneered seemed important to all the countrified jazz from a few years later: Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, and so forth.

The main argument of “Fate” is a strong syncopated even-eighth note melody harmonized in diatonic triads floating over a bagpipe pedal and arco bass. This suspended feeling is answered by a gospel chord section embellished by Horace Silver rumbles in the left hand.

“Fate” is from Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, a rather odd concept album that mostly features straight ahead arrangements of Brazilian music from the famous movie. Monty Budwig and Colin Bailey are really swinging, but the pianist is generally a lite mix of Red Garland and Bill Evans. Guaraldi was an important factor in a gentle jazzy Americanization of various South American musics in the 50’s and 60’s with Cal Tjader and Bola Sete, so having him swing out on these Brazilian tunes is not an obvious choice.

At any rate, “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” triumphs over the rest of the disc. It’s easy to see why the song became popular and why the producers of Charlie Brown wanted Guaraldi.

There are a few oddities in “Linus and Lucy” that probably only insiders usually appreciate. The syncopated bassline is somewhat hard to hear correctly: Not for professionals, of course, but for amateurs. I’ve played “Lucy” at least 100 times at parties over the years, and at least one civilian always claps in a way that indicates they hear the “and of four” as “one.” I can’t think of another pop piano work that could credibly create this kind of rhythmic uncertainty with a significant number of fans.

The original recording helps “hide the beat” with a sustained arco A-flat in the bass (a detail carried directly over from “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”).  This, frankly, is a genius bit of arranging.

Since the drums offer only soft brushes with light backbeat high hat, the rhythm is really carried by the left hand piano ostinato, which starts every measure with a strong upbeat. Thus the amateur’s rhythmic confusion. (It might be added that the delightful way the cartoon characters dance is totally unsynchronized to the music.)

Over the ostinato is a very old trick indeed, horn fifths, the same sequence of dyads used by any European composer for hundreds of years to suggest country matters. In classic American fashion, Guaraldi steals that old country material and marries it to African-influenced rhythm in the bottom. Boom: You’ve got a hit.

Just like “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” “Linus and Lucy” has a gospel shout section answering the main theme. Both works also have a short central section of  4/4 swing; “Lucy” has a latin bit as well. Guaraldi’s jazz improvisations on “Lucy” are blocky and just barely acceptable. I seriously doubt any fan waits for those solo sections. The meat is the main tune. While the jazz is going on you talk to your friend until the theme comes back.

These are great pieces, but I don’t think Guaraldi was a great composer. He’s more like other one-hit wonders in rock and pop: Through luck and talent, a certain puzzle-box or two got assembled just right. However, these composers don’t always have enough practiced skill to work through problems without a magical confluence. In other Guaraldi music there are seams a professional would stitch together more smoothly. Even the hits have problems, for example the D dominant near the end of the solo section of “Lucy,” an obviously incorrect choice I still find jarring after all these years. (Eb7/ Db7/ C7/ Db7 — ok, kind of a Spanish scenario — Eb7/ Db7/ C7/ Db7/ D7: wtf?/ Eb7)

Flaws doesn’t matter. A Charlie Brown Christmas remains the ultimate gateway drug to jazz. That bright, clear, rhythmic piano has undoubtedly made countless casual viewers curious about this music. Merry Christmas to us from Vince Guaraldi!