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Music Review: The Definitive Vince Guaraldi

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Written by Fantasma el Rey

Way back before he met the Peanuts gang pianist Vince Guaraldi was playing fine jazz either as a sideman or leading a trio. Cutting, digging, and jiving his way through the San Francisco scene, turning out platters on the Fantasy label for years. Here now is The Definitive two-disc collection of his finest works from those early days to his ‘60s hits, and of course, the tunes brought him to the masses.

Guaraldi began in the early 1950s as a sideman for vibraphonist Cal Tjader and then for clarinetist Woody Herman before forming his own trio around ’55. With years of side work under his cap and backed by hard-working kats who’d been gigging around like himself, he began his run at jazz stardom. From these years come jams like “Calling Dr. Funk,” which includes some good alto sax by Jerry Dodgion, and the flying “Fascinating Rhythm.” The latter is a fast-paced romp that has the ivories smokin’ while the guitar (Eddie Duran) and bass (Dean Reilly) are on fire as the trio race to the finish; listen to the last piano run, you can hear a bit of the future.

The trio can slow it down to a sleepy stroll with tunes like “Never Never Land” and “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing.” The boys can also swing a bit with the cool “Fenwyck’s Farfel” and the hep grooves laid down on “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise.”

“Samba De Orfeu” begins a new phase in Vince’s career as he picks up a Latin beat and incorporates samba and bossa nova rhythms into the mix (“Mr. Lucky,” “Corovada,” and “Work Song”). Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete plays on a few tunes that include “Star Song,” “The Days Of Wine And Roses,” “Ginza Samba,” and “The Girl From Ipanema”

Guaraldi scored his biggest hit with 1962’s “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” the song producer Lee Mendelson heard and kept in mind as he worked with cartoonist Charles Schultz while bringing Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip to television. The connection becomes clear after one listen to songs like “Cast Your Fate” and “El Matador” that this will be the music of the Peanuts gang and become Guaraldi’s signature sound: cheerful piano; plucky bass; and steady, easy-going brush drumming with a slight Latin kick. Overall mellow and cool, yet very playful. Mendelson made the call to Guaraldi and the rest is history.

With all the pieces in place, Guaraldi, a Peanuts fan in his own right, put it all together and gave us the classics we know and love today: the bouncy “Linus And Lucy” and “Skating;” the mellow “Oh, Good Grief;” and the quirky “Charlie Brown Theme.” Let’s not forget the holiday titles that go hand in hand with those original specials, “Thanksgiving Theme,” “Christmas Is Coming,” “Christmas Is Here,” and “The Great Pumpkin Waltz.” The holidays wouldn’t be complete without seeing these specials or hearing these songs somewhere as you shop for gifts or pick up that last-minute can of yams.

So go grab The Definitive Vince Guaraldi because without him and his cheerful piano playing we wouldn’t have those jazzy memories of holidays gone by. And if not for his years of knocking around San Francisco soaking up the sounds, it wouldn’t have all come together and given him the fame he knew he would achieve. It’s too bad a heart attack claimed Guaraldi at 47 before he knew the lasting effect his music would have on the world.

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