For many listeners, Vince Guaraldi’s legacy will forever be tied to the merry Yuletide melodies that he recorded on the landmark soundtrack album, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Though it arrived a decade into his recording career, the album solidified in the public consciousness Guaraldi’s unique and playful piano style, the impact of which has endured for generations. Now, Omnivore Recordings puts the spotlight on another chapter of the pianist’s career in a new 2-CD set called The Complete Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Recordings.
Guaraldi signed to the roster at the tail end of the sixties, after lengthy litigation with a former label and a failed independent release. Eager for a restart, Guaraldi delivered three albums for the label between 1968 and 1969. All of these recordings are accounted for on this new set, as are four previously unreleased outtakes. Together, these tracks show Guaraldi exploring different musical contexts, embracing the potential of emerging recording technologies, and enjoying the creative freedom of a new label.
1968’s Oh, Good Grief! (originally WS 1747) makes up the first eight tracks of the collection’s first disc. The album finds Guaraldi in sometimes-familiar, Peanuts territory. Tracks like “Great Pumpkin Waltz” and “Rain, Rain Go Away” display the jazz prowess of Guaraldi and his combo of drummer Carl Burnett, bassist Stanley Gilbert, and guitarist Eddie Duran. But it’s when the group strays from the jazz ballad that things get really interesting. Take, for example, the classic “Linus and Lucy,” that opens Oh, Good Grief! It’s a recognizable piece, but here it is presented with a new, slightly more rocking backdrop. Duran’s distorted electric guitar and Guaraldi’s new electric harpsichord–which he overdubbed to accompany his piano playing–help to recast the old into a new and forward-thinking context. The harpsichord and guitar combination also features on Peanuts material like “Peppermint Patty” and “He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown.” These tracks are imbued with a rock ‘n’ roll buoyancy, demonstrating the exciting directions that Guaraldi would explore during his tenure at Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Records.
Russ Wilson of The Oakland Tribune celebrated Guaraldi’s musical explorations in a 1968 concert review, remarking that the musician had been freed from “the bossa nova-mood music groove,” and was now “playing with enthusiasm and delight, moving ahead in a new, refreshing direction.” Indeed, the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts era afforded Guaraldi many newfound creative possibilities, which he embraced in the studio, too. Overdubs allowed Guaraldi to craft new timbres and textures, while the record company’s lax studio regulations meant he and his band could spend more time perfecting each track. No longer was the recording studio a rushed environment. Gone was the pressure for “one-take wonders.” At his new label, Guaraldi could enjoy the process of creative exploration.
Vince Guaraldi took that mission to heart on his next release, appropriately titled The Eclectic Vince Guaraldi (originally WS 1775, 1969). It’s a well-intentioned, if somewhat slapdash collection of spaced-out rock jams, syrupy strings, the obligatory Beatles cover, a version of Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” and Guaraldi’s two surprising attempts at singing from the Tim Hardin songbook (“Reason to Believe” and “Black Sheep Boy.”) The at-times heavy-handed arrangements sometimes cause the pianist’s work to take the back seat to a growing number of accompanists, but Guaraldi’s talents are hardly rendered useless.
The Guaraldi original, “Coffee and Doe-nuts,” for example, is a dynamic, jammy workout that spotlights the jazz talents of his core combo while an eleven-piece string ensemble weaves in and out to exciting effect. Not every song is as effective, though, and there are some real question marks on the album.
Meanwhile, some compelling recordings were left on the cutting room floor. Four such previously unissued tracks, culled from sessions that took place in 1968 and 1969, open Disc Two of Omnivore’s new collection. “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” features Guaraldi taking over the melody on electric harpsichord with jaunty accompaniment and impressive solos throughout. Here, the strings have gone and he and his core group of accompanists shine. An alternate take of “The Beat Goes On” winds along in a seven-minute jam that’s nearly double the length of the album take. Guaraldi and company also tackle the hit “Oh, Happy Day” and the energetic original composition, “The Share Cropper’s Daughter.” Though not altogether revelatory, these are all worthy and welcome performances that show the musician’s creative process and instrumental prowess at work.
In comparison to the adventurous sessions for the Eclectic album, 1970’s Alma-Ville–which makes up the rest of Disc Two–is a much more reigned-in effort. It’s as though the label were reacting to the underwhelming commercial performance of the prior long-player, as West Coast jazz veteran, Shorty Rogers, was hired to loom over the proceedings. The result is a much more focused collection of mostly Latin-tinged originals, along with a reimagining of his old tune “Jimbo’s” and The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Compared to the previous album, Alma-Ville is more stripped-down, but it’s not without its surprises. “Uno y uno” features eyebrow-raising lead guitar from Guaraldi, while “Alma-Ville” pleasantly shifts from Latin grooves to straight-ahead jazz-blues.
Sadly, this album of solid performances was doomed to be forgotten over the years, as was the majority of his Warner Bros.-Seven Arts material. Eclectic and Alma-Ville received a short-lived reissue in the mid-2000s, but they quickly fell back out of print.
Thankfully, Omnivore Recordings has now given this era of Vince Guaraldi’s career the presentation it deserves. The music has been beautifully remastered by Grammy-winner Michael Graves, who restored every track at high-resolution 24bit/96kHz quality in preparation for the CD release. Accompanying the music are informative liner notes by Vince Guaraldi authority Derrick Bang, which track the pianist’s transformative journey at Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Records.
In all, the team at Omnivore Recordings has given listeners a real treat with this release, as fans and newcomers alike can now celebrate this once-overlooked period in Vince Guaraldi’s brilliant career.