Album of the Month: Vince Guaraldi Trio - A Charlie Brown Christmas
If you’re around the WYSO studios as the wintery months roll in, you will inevitably hear me bring up my undying love for this album, with such supposed hyperboles as “A Charlie Brown Christmas is and always will be the greatest holiday album ever made,” or something like that. In spite of how large this claim is, I do really believe it to be true, and the fact that this album is in its basic description just a soundtrack to a children’s cartoon Christmas special makes it all the more fascinating and even puzzling. This album didn’t have to be this way, didn’t have to have the impact that it did and still does. But I believe not just the source material, but the way the music is treated with such care by Vince Guaraldi and crew, is exactly what makes it hold this great distinction, what makes it crystallize the mixture of feelings and moods that the holiday season brings so magically.
The album is split between jazz impressions of holiday standards (or just straight Beethoven in one case), and Guaraldi original tunes. Both baskets of songs are wonderful, but for my money, the originals are where the work really shines. From the frosty glide of “Skating,” to the drive and anticipation of “Christmas Is Coming,” to that joyous, iconic bassline of “Linus and Lucy,” Guaraldi and his trio make a delightful wintry world out of their small forces. The album’s artistic (and literal) centerpiece, though, is the waltzy shuffle of “Christmas Time Is Here.” What makes this song so special is how potently it carries the combination of wistful remembrance and dashes of melancholy that pervade the holiday season. The lyrics bring “happiness and cheer,” but the music suggests something else, with drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall bringing a gentle lilt under Guaraldi’s introspective chords. This is the mood that prevails throughout the animated special, a constant tug between Charlie Brown’s pessimism and the rest of the Peanuts gang’s positivity, and this music understands and embodies it just so. The children’s choir is the song’s crown jewel, their imperfect voices the perfect vessel for lyrics on holiday tradition and splendor. The dichotomy of such young voices carrying these more adult sentiments is what completes the song, with its final words of “oh that we could always see such spirit through the year” the yearning for that yuletide warmth in other times where temperatures rise but fellowship cools.
The holiday standards taken on here are all masterfully done, from the stately opening of “O Tannenbaum” to the floating, textural interpretation of The Little Drummer Boy as “My Little Drum.” The one that has always mystified and captivated me most, however, is the album’s closing track, “The Christmas Song.” With an opening sweep across the keys, and a little push and pull, Guaraldi transmits some hidden well of emotion in this Christmas classic that’s just transfixing. Something about the trio’s take on the tune gets me misty-eyed, even a little choked up to this day. This album is a constantly-growing memory mine for me, from soundtracked drives around my snowy old neighborhood years ago, to dancing around my living room with my partner, gleefully twirling along with the record as it spins in the corner. How this collection synthesizes the glow of the season with the melancholy of winter I think is what makes it so special to listeners decades on, what’s made it a perennial presence on speakers and shelves all over. Every year I get so excited to pull it back out, and a little sad to put it away as the holidays recede, but just like I know the landscape will change and temperatures will drop a year from now again, I know that these eleven magical songs will be waiting for me, and I’ll be as ready as always.
You can receive a copy of this album, and support WYSO, your home for music discovery, public service journalism and so much more, by making a contribution today.