Written by Kevin Whitehead from National Public Radio
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 minded. He said taking requests for the tune 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.
After Dec. 9, 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 is 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 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.
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 midcentury piano stylist, Nashville’s Floyd Cramer.
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 aren’t so compelling, but he could make a standard ballad snap to attention. In 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.
All this music comes from a new compilation, 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-album 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, as well as an instrumental hit right when jazz was vanishing from AM radio. He didn’t just play for Peanuts.