If you've followed catalogue releases for long enough, you know some titles just do so well that you don't necessarily have to go out of your way to get people - especially new fans - to buy a new version of a classic album. Buyers - especially vinyl buyers - will always come of age and need copies of Rumours or Dark Side of the Moon in their libraries. It's this sort of thinking - perhaps a rebellion against the commercialism of reissue practices - that often gets us most interested not in the shiny aluminum models on the musical Christmas tree lots, but the small titles and seemingly bare-branched obscurities whose modest contents hide a lot of heart. They're not such bad little trees - maybe they just need a little love.
Vince Guaraldi's jazzy soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas is decidedly not one of those underdogs. For more than 55 years, the music to the dearly-beloved holiday special is a reliable seller from Amazon trucks, Barnes & Noble counters and indie record retail shelves. It's been reissued on vinyl six ways to Snoopy's doghouse, with at least three notable releases/archival expansions on CD. It's always a reliable listen, but under normal circumstances, it doesn't need our digital ink singing its praises; you likely already know.
So it's a delight to have spent some time with the new A Charlie Brown Christmas (Super Deluxe Edition) (Craft Recordings CR00442) and uncovered some pleasant surprises to go with our long-welcome favorite. A fine 4CD/Blu-ray box set, this new spin on an old classic includes the original album in several mixes - its original stereo version and new surround and stereo mixes by Steve Genswick and Paul Blakemore, respectively - plus a treasure trove of 58 tracks' worth of alternate takes from the recording sessions. Even for a record you've doubtlessly played many times, it's a delight that a box like this can offer so many pointers on how to do an archival release right.
Legendarily, the existence of the music to A Charlie Brown Christmas is, in and of itself, a minor holiday miracle. Producer/director team Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez had failed to drum up interest from networks in a planned documentary on Charles M. Schulz, creator of the beloved Peanuts comic strip - and the decision to create a half-hour holiday special featuring animated versions of good ol' Charlie Brown and friends was made almost blindly. (Coca-Cola happily took on the project as a sponsor in the spring of 1965, but wanted it for that holiday season.) Jazz pianist Guaraldi was the natural choice to compose a score - he'd already done an album for that special that never happened, featuring a snappy little number called "Linus and Lucy" - and he worked hard to devise a mix of holiday standards in his own style alongside some originals for the special.
The original 11 tracks that make up A Charlie Brown Christmas lose none of their magic in their umpeenth appearance on this box. The smiling stride Guaraldi's trio infuses into "O Tannenbaum"; the effortless beauty and fleet fingers of "Skating"; the Yuletide yearning of "Christmas Time is Here"; the hip-shaking bossa nova of "Christmas is Coming"; even the familiar embrace of "Linus and Lucy" (ported over from Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown) - it's all as warm as a hearth and a mug of cocoa welcoming you in from the cold. (Surprisingly, given the subtleties of jazz dynamics, the two stereo mixes don't feel that different, but it is nice to know the tapes exist in good enough condition to get this treatment.) The rhythmic flourishes of Guaraldi's sidemen - entirely unconfirmed though they may be, as explained in the box's liner notes - really pop throughout these discs, offering a solid counterpoint to Guaraldi's sturdy ivory-tickling.
Much of the set's newfound joy comes, of course, from the near three hours of studio sessions included herein. For an album that sounds so effortless, it's amazing to discover the sheer effort put in by Guaraldi and company here. "Christmas is Coming" takes a particularly long time to jell, with some intriguing alternate bridge approaches thrown around before we start to hear what we know best. Hearing the pianist's tongue-in-cheek anguish on early attempts of "Skating" or gentle candor with the children's choir on "Christmas Time is Here" is a real treat. (Another fascinating moment in sort of the other direction: the trio nails "O Tannenbaum" on the first take and spends a few takes changing the tempo and swing - one of which made it into the special itself.) Not everything about these discs are perfect - the "Christmas Time is Here" vocal sessions don't have the most sonic fidelity you've ever enjoyed, and tapes for some of the other tracks ("My Little Drum," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing") have yet to turn up. But if you adore this album, you'll find much to appreciate here.
Particular praise must be delivered upon the physical package, which features not only art from the Christmas special (with a few choice bits of tape box images and other ephemera sprinkled throughout) but a stellar set of liner notes by Derrick Bang. Bang is inarguably the authority on Guaraldi, and having to break new ground on a familiar topic is no small feat. What makes these notes shine are their attention to detail - he teases out the murkiness of who played alongside Guaraldi on these recordings, and does a great job explaining which of these alternate takes were previously issued (not only on the 1988 debut of the album on CD but a 2006 reissue that featured a heap of extra, and remixed, material). The convivial tone of the notes - and some great quotes by witnesses, including some of the now-grown kids who sang on the recordings - is also ideal to someone new to box sets. By not assuming you already know everything there is to know, Bang does a job worthy of his own surname.
As we publish this, the Christmas shopping season is all but done. That said: if you have an opportunity to pick this box up for a fan - even if it's you - you should make it a priority. Pretty decent sound quality, engaging bonus material, a handsome presentation...that's what box sets are all about, Charlie Brown.
You can order A Charlie Brown Christmas at the links here.
David G. says
As terrific as this set sounds, one wishes the complete soundtrack had been explored for once including pieces not on the original album. Among them are 'Charlie Brown Theme' as he is directing the Christmas play; 'Freda' (With The Naturally Curly Hair) in her scene with Pigpen; 'Happiness Is' as Sally swoons over Linus; and 'Surfin' Snoopy' as the naughty canine decorates his doghouse with lights. (The first three are on 'Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown', which would explain why they weren't repeated for the subsequent soundtrack LP.) Also, it's about time the original album was re-sequenced as to how the tunes appear in the special- it makes no sense that 'Christmas Time is Here' (vocal version) is not the opening track and 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' the closer. Thankfully this can be rectified by re-programming on CD but vinyl enthusiasts will be busy flipping this album over several times to recreate the original song order.
All said and done, Craft is an excellent reissue label and Happy Holidays to everyone!
Robert L says
Great points; I would want the original soundtrack of "Christmas Time Is Here" as well with the chorus singing just "Christmas Time..." a few times and it fades out.
Michael Grabowski says
For Christmas one year (30 or more years ago) I received a book & record edition that was a rip (before there were rips) of the entire animated special, dialogue and all. The sound quality wasn't great (kinda like the first Great Pumpkin disc from a few years ago) and I believe it was sped up, too, even though a typical LP would have fit it all just fine. But at least it had all those cues you mention, in the broadcast sequence.
Rob M says
That 2006 reissue was a travesty (incorrect mixes used, bad mastering…remember they actually repressed and sent replacement discs to people who complained at time?). This one gets it right. I love this album, and this package was money very well spent.