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Album Review | Jazz

‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’ displays Vince Guaraldi Trio’s many gifts

Strange as this will probably sound to 21st-century ears, there was a time when rock ’n’ roll was absolutely massive — meaning, the Beatles, Stones, and Dylan had just started doing their respective things — and jazz still made inroads on the charts. Your local jukebox could have “She Loves You” and “Satisfaction” next to greasy hard bop sides by the likes of Art Blakey and Lee Morgan. Deep, soul-encrusted, R&B-funkified jazz.

But here’s the thing: Ask most people if they like jazz, and they’ll probably tell you they don’t, thinking it’s something old and musty and hard to understand, or they’ll say they’re not that familiar with it. And yet everyone loves the music of “Peanuts,” which is enough of its own self-possessed thing that we tend not to regard it as jazz at all. Which is both weird and so Charlie Brown-y.

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Nowadays, most of pianist-composer Vince Guaraldi’s “Peanuts’’ music is encountered at Halloween and Christmas in those delightful specials we’ve all seen, regardless of race, faith, or creed, dozens of times. But now we have “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,’’ a soundtrack from 1964 to a film that was meant to chronicle a day — or days— in the life of “Peanuts’’ creator Charles Schulz.

Director-producer Lee Mendelson asked Dave Brubeck, jazz superstar, to do the honors of the soundtrack. Brubeck passed, which later became a classic case of “my bad.” Guaraldi got the nod and brought in trio colleagues Monty Budwig on bass and Colin Bailey on drums. Initial inspiration took hold in the form of “Linus and Lucy,” perhaps the most instantly recognizable piece of music this country has ever produced. For four or five note motivic patterns, it’s as immediately placeable as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, and Guaraldi was giddy enough that he first played it to Mendelson over the phone, fearful he’d forget it.

Mendelson had just made a film looking at Willie Mays as the greatest ballplayer, so now the thinking was to do one on the world’s worst — our man Chuck B — who had helmed his team to no less than 983 consecutive losses. But this being Charlie Brown, the potential TV film became rather like one of those footballs Lucy was always ripping away at the last second, and none of the networks would agree to air the picture. “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” the soundtrack to the film that wasn’t, was released though. (Again, odd. Come buy the soundtrack of the film you never saw?)

You would have been wise to do just that, or to do so now. This is jazz, from a certain point of view, and in this fresh mix you can get a better sense than ever for the crucial roll of Bailey’s brushwork, and it’s like it fed right into how the later specials were written — underscoring Snoopy swooshing across the ice, or leaves rustling in that most forlorn of pumpkin patches.

“Schroeder,” a sub-2-minute charmer, is straight out of the Stephen Foster songbook, with rustic highlights enlivened by a tintinnabulous, bell-like quality to Guaraldi’s opening piano passes. The “Peanuts’’ gang had a way of taking life’s minor key moments and turning them into more upbeat, major-key affairs by the end — we should all be so blessed — and “Schroeder” provides a nice musical analogue to that feat.

The “Charlie Brown Theme” features, appropriately, clusters of blue notes, and while it’s a “Kind of Blue”-lite type of treatment, boyish insouciance (which is often pretend insouciance) gives way to reflection, which in turn is succeeded by get-up-and-go vim, as was Charlie Brown’s wont and way.

Beatles fans are apt to see a title like “Happiness Is” and draw a rather regrettable conclusion, especially as the happiness in this instance is a dog who is also a rogue, and probably the most lovable non-human rogue in pop culture history. Maybe it’s his rococo personality, but for whatever reason, Snoopy’s track is the closest we get to European classical music territory here. Something on the classy side for the doghouse hi-fi.

“Freda (With the Naturally Curly Hair)” epitomizes, in sonic form, the girl who got away, or the girl who couldn’t be bothered to care because she was too busy nattering on. It’s a chirpy, sparrow-y kind of a song, with a nice pile-driver rhythm, but it’s “Blue Charlie Brown” that is the real takeaway song that you might not know. Remember how when Linus is going out to the pumpkin patch and the sky is ever-darkening, turning to that shade of obsidian crossed with mottled purples? That’s the sound of “Blue Charlie Brown,” were the Great Pumpkin to finally descend and exclaim a “Behold! Check out this album!”

Colin Fleming can be reached at flemingcolin@comcast.net.
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