“I don’t think I’m a great piano player,” Vince Guaraldi once said, “but I would like to have people like me, to play pretty tunes and reach the audience. I hope some of those tunes will become standards. I want to write standards, not just hits.” As even those with limited exposure to Guaraldi’s work can tell you, he didn’t just write standards; he set them. His cool jazz-infused compositions for Charles Schulz’s Peanuts TV specials — music that was by turns spirited and poignant — certainly qualify as classics, not just within the genres of children’s programming or of jazz but in the popular imagination.
Guaraldi’s much-loved A Charlie Brown Christmas, a soundtrack originally released way back in 1965, is the most classic of this self-effacing piano player’s classics. It’s also a big seller. No wonder, then, that Fantasy Records reissued it, first in 1988 and then again, with Concord Records, in 2006. Naysayers have grumbled on various websites, including this one, about the remastered A Charlie Brown Christmas Album (with bonus tracks). They say it’s too pristine sounding and that the alternate takes are not on par with the perfection of the original. In the case of the former, hey, it’s a matter of taste; some people like tape hisses and such, and some prefer a sleeker sound. The merit of the bonus cuts, however, cannot be debated.
The additional versions — of “Greensleeves,” “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Christmas Is Coming” — are more of a good thing, period. There will never be an album of fresh material from Vince Guaraldi; tragically and unexpectedly, he died from a heart attack in 1976, when he was just 47. We’re fortunate to have newish songs like these, especially when they’re this good. The restrained “Greensleeves” on the 1965 album seems almost ponderous compared to alternate take 6, which has a hep pizzazz resulting from looser piano playing, a more-prominent bass, the stirring use of what sounds like an egg shaker and snappy drumming in place of the original’s gentle, splashy brushwork. If Charlie and Lucy grew up and went to sophisticated jazz lounges on dates, this is the kind of song a skillful trio onstage would be playing.
Alternate take 13 of “Greensleeves,” on the other hand, is at least 13 shades darker than both of the other versions. At times, it sounds like Guaraldi is sinking his fingers right down through the ivories, like he’s implanting the notes in his piano. A snare drum kicks in protest, while the cymbals shiver. The three renditions of “Greensleeves” make the case for this reissue all on their own, I would argue. The alternate “Christmas Is Coming” is also both a real find and a real joy. Guaraldi and his fellow musicians deliver a performance that is rangy and sly, and the sheer aliveness of it is — dare I say — a gift that keeps on giving.