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Vince Guaraldi Didn't Just Play For 'Peanuts'
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Vince Guaraldi Didn't Just Play For 'Peanuts'


In 1962, San Francisco pianist Vince Guaraldi put out a single, a jazz version of a samba from the movie "Black Orpheus." It didn't get far until disc jockeys started playing the B side, which became a hit and snared him a Grammy.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead picks up Guaraldi's story from there.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: There must have been times in 1963 when Vince Guaraldi was riding high on his surprise hit "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," when he thought: This is what I'll be remembered for. Not that he have minded. He said taking requests for it was like signing the back of a check. The song's got a great hook tied to a poppy, uplifting chord sequence. He'd mostly be remembered for it, too, if soon after he hadn't written the music for a TV Christmas special that CBS didn't have much hope for.


WHITEHEAD: Now you know who I'm talking about. After December 9th, 1965, Vince Guaraldi wasn't the "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" guy. He was the "Peanuts" guy. Even if Charlie Brown cartoons make you wince, you can hear that the music's a perfect fit, as light as a kids' song. The breezy, syncopated bass pattern and sprightly chords of Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" evoked Schroeder pecking at his toy piano and that pirouetting Snoopy dog. The tune was maddeningly catchy in a good way. Guaraldi would break away from the main theme just so he could bring it back.


WHITEHEAD: Vince Guaraldi was fascinated by boogie-woogie when he was young, and that rumbling left-hand bass part is boogie modernized and streamlined. He wasn't a super-virtuoso, but he was a great piano stylist who favored a pared-down singing line and loved to swing. His fingers were short, but they'd sprint up the keys. Guaraldi would also slip up to the good notes from below, like another great mid-century piano stylist, Nashville's Floyd Cramer.


WHITEHEAD: With Guaraldi or Ahmad Jamal or Ramsey Lewis, the stuff that wears best is all about fetching rhythm and a bluesy economy. To my ears, Guaraldi's slow tunes and bossas are not so compelling, but he could make a standard ballad snap to attention. On a 1957 version of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," guitarist Eddie Duran flicks the offbeats under the melody and then doubles the pressure for the piano solo. Duran is so tight with bassist Dean Reilly, the trio doesn't need a drummer.


WHITEHEAD: All this music comes from the new "The Very Best of Vince Guaraldi," part of the Concord Music Group's commitment to endlessly repackaging the best sellers from its vast holdings. It's barely three years since the double-CD "Definitive Vince Guaraldi."

I wouldn't call everything on the new disc his very best, but there's plenty to make his case, especially if you think he's just for nostalgic boomers. Vince Guaraldi had range, and had an instrumental hit right when jazz was vanishing from AM radio. He didn't just play for "Peanuts."


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat, and emusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "The Very Best of Vince Guaraldi" on the Fantasy Concord label. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" based on the popular young adult novel. This is FRESH AIR.

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