Good grief! That time of year is, indeed, here once again, and with it a fresh batch of seasonal CD releases. Although nothing new, a few years back it suddenly became especially vogue for many artists to cut an album of holiday favorites. The result, more often than not, has been a senseless butchering of once-classic songs for a quick buck.
Rarely, does a contemporary artist have anything new to offer, other than recycled variations on a Yuletide theme. Accomplished jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut does not, by any means, fit into this last category, yet I still take issue with his new disc A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Those familiar, of course, with the popular television special penned by the late Charles Schulz, are also (whether they realize it or not) well versed in the accompanying jazz score from the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The underrated Guaraldi, who was best known for his catalog of Peanuts' music, consistently captured the understated essence of Schulz's wry humor and humane vision.
Nowhere is this more true than in his magical compositions for A Charlie Brown Christmas, 35 years ago. Original tunes like "Skating," "Christmas Time is here," and the immediately recognizable "Linus and Lucy" join winsome versions of more traditional carols on a soundtrack that perfectly conveyed the warm spirit of the occasion.
One of many youngsters captivated by the Peanuts' characters and Guaraldi's music, Cyrus Chestnut has set out to bring this music, in an updated form, to a new generation of jazz lovers. To assist him in this endeavor, Chestnut enlists the help of a number of top-notch musicians including Brian McKnight, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, Don Alias, Michael Brecker, and the Boys Choir of Harlem to name but a few.
Nevertheless, the best supporting cast in the world can only do so much with musical material already rendered timeless in its exceptional first setting. From the outset, the well-intentioned pianist faces an uphill battle in his re-interpretation of Guaraldi's sentimental music. However, he doesn't help himself any by allowing smoother charts and silkier instrumentation in his new renditions of the pure originals. And giving Vanessa Williams the lead vocal on the nostalgic "Christmas Time is here" is simply a mistake.
In his defense, Chestnut does state in the album liner notes "this is not an attempt to recreate what was done...but a personal musical statement from my heart." While I can certainly empathize with the intimate appreciation of Guaraldi's masterpiece, I do not condone the rather impossible task of producing a more memorable album in the present.