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Vince Guaraldi: Peanuts Portraits (70th Anniversary LP Edition)

09-30-2020 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 111

Vince Guaraldi Peanuts Portraits

If you're a baby boomer (OK, Boomer!) or one of their children, you no doubt have a strong familiarity of the works of jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. Or at least, you know him through osmosis, via his compositions for the many Charlie Brown and Peanuts television specials and movies that have aired almost incessantly since the mid-sixties. The first Peanuts comic strips from cartoonist Charles Schulz appeared in newspapers in October, 1950, and the strips soon captured the imagination of audiences throughout the world. And the original soundtrack from 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas television special has sold quite a few LPs and CDs over the years. Reaching, at one point, the number one position on the Billboard charts, and having gone 4x platinum over roughly six decades. Others have followed, but none quite reaching the gargantuan level of success of A Charlie Brown Christmas; it remains to this day the Vince Guaraldi Trio's best selling record.

Prior to the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas however, San Francisco bay area TV producer Lee Mendelson was working on a documentary about cartoonist Schulz and the popularity of the Peanuts cartoon strips. And for the music, he chose local bay area jazz musician Vince Guaraldi to compose the soundtrack that highlighted some of the strip's more popular characters. Like Linus and his sister Lucy, pianist Schroeder, Frieda (with the naturally curly hair), and of course, Charlie Brown. The thirty-minute film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, was basically ready to go in 1964, but the network eventually pulled the plug because Mendelson failed to sign a prominent on-air sponsor, and the project never aired. Mendelson regrouped and came up with the concept for the now legendary Christmas special, and Vince Guaraldi assembled the music used in the documentary along with other tunes he wrote for the film, which became his 1964 release Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown. It laid the groundwork for the entire franchise, and placed a firm musical impression of the coming Charlie Brown mania in the minds of the record-buying public.

With the proliferation of the Peanuts specials over the coming decades, Guaraldi composed the music for all of them, though none of them reached the level of popularity of the Christmas album. And none of them warranted individual soundtracks in the same vein as the Christmas special, though some very classic tracks—like "The Great Pumpkin Waltz" and "Blue Charlie Brown"—did gain an impressive level of popularity over the years. During his lifetime, only two additional albums of Peanuts material were released, the 1968 compilation O Good Grief! and a 1970 reboot of the music from A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Though in the time since his death, over a half-dozen new compilations of Guaraldi's Peanuts-related compositions have been released, including Peanuts Portraits in 2010, the subject of this review. This new release marks the first time it's ever appeared on LP, and also marks the first time that eight of the included tracks have ever appeared on the LP format. And it's a dual release, of sorts, with a 180 gram LP version being released by Craft Recordings, along with a red colored vinyl 180 gram LP being released by Vinyl Me Please. The Vinyl Me Please red vinyl version of Peanuts Portraits is the one I received as my review copy.

While I would normally consider an album like Peanuts Portraits to be a novelty record at best, my love of jazz—and especially my love of Vince Guaraldi's body of work—makes this a much more worthwhile project for me. And the general overall excellence of anything that's come my way from Craft Recordings has always been a big plus. Though this project has a new wrinkle for me: the vinyl pressing comes from Vinyl Me Please rather than Craft Recordings, which is a first for me and will be an entirely new experience. And just for clarity: the "70th Anniversary" verbiage here refers to the seventieth anniversary of the introduction of the Peanuts comic strip in 1950; the material for this release was originally assembled for the compact disc release in 2010.

A little bit about the subject material here; the album opens with the classic "Linus and Lucy," which I could listen to a thousand times and never grow tired of hearing. It's followed by "Sally's Blues," which gives us a glimpse of the angst that Charlie Brown's little sister goes through in her quest for Linus' affection. "Blue Charlie Brown (version no. 2)" gives us Guaraldi playing electric keyboards along with a very stylish electric guitar vamp—I'm pretty sure this is the version that appears in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and it's an absolute classic. We then get a portrait of "Peppermint Patty," which is probably the album's weakest selection, and suffers from the poorest sound here as well. The version of "Schroeder" is also an alternate take, and "Little Birdie," Vince Guaraldi's homage to Snoopy's ever-present companion, Woodstock, features a rare but absolutely perfect vocal from none other than Guaraldi himself—it's also a classic in the Charlie Brown canon of songs. The album finishes with a pair of tunes from New Age pianist George Winston, who was a student of Vince Guaraldi, and has recorded his own album of Guaraldi tunes. While Winston's versions of "Masked Marvel" and "Linus and Lucy" have their own charms, they don't really mesh well with the otherwise all-Guaraldi program. Sorry, George, but you'd think the record company could have come up with a better choice of closing tunes for an otherwise interesting LP.

Now for the bad news: while I've had nothing but praise for every Craft Recordings LP that's come my way, I was less than impressed with the LP version of Peanuts Portraits from Vinyl Me Please. I felt the sound—while truly exceptional in places—was generally lackluster overall, especially on the "Peppermint Patty" track. And there were some quality control problems with the pressing; the vinyl of Side One was especially noisy towards the inner tracks of the record, which is surprising for an album that only clocks in at 38 minutes. I examined the surfaces of the LP, they're glossy, with no apparent scratches or glitches—which made the presences of the poor, crackly sound especially surprising. Just for giggles, I checked out the 2010 digital files that were available on streaming service Qobuz—and the sound was virtually a note-perfect representation of what I was hearing on the LP. There was a lot of hiss in places; I'd actually not be surprised if the LP was cut from the digital master for the 2010 release. "Peppermint Patty" sounded just as poorly via the digital files as it did on the LP.

So here's the bottom line: if you're a die-hard fan, this is an absolutely beautiful red vinyl LP, and the package is very nice as well, with a beautifully done outer jacket and inner sleeve. And this is timeless, classically joyful jazz from Vince Guaraldi. That said, the Vinyl Me Please 180 gram LP was noisy with plenty of pops and clicks; even a second cleaning before additional playback didn't improve the situation. If you're still in the hunt for a copy, from what I could glean from the Vinyl Me Please website, the initial pressing run is completely sold out—though I did see copies available from other online sources going for in the neighborhood of $50. I'd hope that the Craft Recordings black vinyl 180 gram LP—which is strictly limited to 2,500 copies and is still available HERE—would be a cut above this. YMMV, depending on how very much you're jonesing to own this LP in one of the available formats.

Vince Guaraldi: Peanuts Portraits (70th Anniversary LP). 180 gram LP: $21.99 MSRP; 180 gram colored red vinyl LP: $28 MSRP.   

Available from Craft Recordings and Vinyl Me Please.

Vince Guaraldi photo courtesy of Concord Records.