After a two year fight to break his heavy-handed contract with Fantasy Records, San Francisco pianist Vince Guaraldi was free to follow his muse, and be compensated fairly for doing so. His first outing, the self-released Vince Guaraldi with the San Francisco Boys Choir, failed to gain any traction, and he subsequently signed a deal with Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. Omnivore’s 2-CD set collects the albums that Guaraldi recorded for the label in 1968 and 1969, Oh, Good Grief!, The Eclectic Vince Guaraldi and Alma-Ville, and adds four previously unreleased bonus tracks to lead off disc two.
Guaraldi won a 1963 Grammy for “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and was praised for his work with guitarist Bola Sete, but it was the 1965 soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas that catapulted his music from jazz clubs into American households. He returned to the Peanuts canon for his first album with Warner Bros., revisiting eight selections with a quartet that included electric guitar, bass and drums. Guaraldi opens the set with a new recording of his most famous composition, “Linus and Lucy,” and its hurried tempo and electric harpsichord flourishes are more big city bustle than the joyous dance of the original.
The harpsichord steps to the fore to open the waltz-time “You’re in Love, Charlie Brown” falling back to vamp as Guaraldi solos on piano. The piano and harpsichord trade the spotlight throughout the album, with only “Great Pumpkin Waltz” and “Rain, Rain Go Away” given fully to acoustic piano. The band swings, and the piano and guitar solos add soul, but the electric harpsichord doesn’t provide Guaraldi’s touch the musical colors of the piano, and now sounds more like an anachronistic infatuation than a solid artistic choice. That said, the harpsichord doesn’t dominate to the point of distraction.
By the autumn of 1968, Guaraldi had grown out his hair and started jamming with the likes of Jerry Garcia. The San Francisco rock scene’s influence is heard both overtly and implicitly on his next album, as Guaraldi stretches out in new musical directions. Self-produced, and recorded over several months with a variety of drummers, bassists and guitarists, Guaraldi even included a string section on a few tracks. The opener has a pensive Latin influence, but with arching string lines that suggest grand landscapes, while the longer jams “Lucifer’s Lady” and “Coffee and Doe-Nuts” feature driving, progressive solos.
Stretching even further, a vocal cover of Tim Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” brings to mind trumpeter Jack Sheldon, but Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” shows off Guaraldi’s limitations as a singer. The harpsichord on Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” sounds more like a primitive synthesizer than a keyboard, and the strings on the Beatles’ “Yesterday” sound like Muzak. Guaraldi plays thoughtfully on a cover of “It Was a Very Good Year,” and finds some life in his electric harpsichord on a swinging cover of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” The latter is offered here as a bonus track from the original sessions, alongside a alternate take of “The Beat Goes On” whose jamming improves upon than the album cut.
The renowned that Guaraldi had earned back with his first Warner Bros. album dissipated with the lack of response to the second, and the label brought Shorty Rogers on board to produce his third and final effort. Guaraldi also returned to acoustic piano and wrote the bulk of the album’s material, giving the album a coherency the previous effort lacked. Guaraldi warmed up with Rogers in the producers seat with an organ-based instrumental cover of Edwin Hawkins’ “Oh Happy Day” and the speedy original “The Sharecropper’s Daughter.” Neither were used for the the album, and are offered here as bonus tracks.
Alma-ville returns Guaraldi’s piano to the fore, opening with the Latin-tinged theme for Snoopy’s arm-wrestling alter ego, “The Masked Marvel,” and offering thoughtful variations on “Eleanor Rigby.” Colin Bailey’s cymbal work adds just the right push to Guaraldi’s right hand and Herb Ellis’ guitar solo on the original “Detained in San Ysidro,” and the rhythm section swings hard on a then-new arrangement of the title tune. Duke Person’s “Cristo Redntor,” previously recorded in definitive versions by both Pearson and Donald Byrd, is an album highlight, opening in a meditative mood before transitioning to a more lively tempo.
Sadly, despite Alma-ville’s focussed song list and deep artistry, its predecessor had sacrificed the label’s goodwill, and the album went unpromoted, leaving Guaraldi’s tenure at Warner Bros. to live in the shadow of his earlier work for Fantasy. Of his three albums for Warners, only the commercially successful Oh, Good Grief! remained in steady circulation, making this complete set the first widely-available retelling of Guaraldi’s quirky, but fruitful last recording tenure. A must-have for Guaraldi’s fans, and a welcome second chapter for those who’ve worn out their copies of A Charlie Brown Christmas. [©2018 Hyperbolium]