Christmas often brings out the best in people. That certainly applies to David Benoit and the artists he assembled for 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas. With fresh takes on several Vince Guaraldi compositions that appeared on the animated Peanuts television series, as well as some traditional holiday offerings, this collection of twelve songs is an ideal recording to share with music lovers. Benoit, who produced the album, is joined by several smooth jazz and R&B artists. But don’t let those descriptions fool you. This is a jazz lover’s delight.
Benoit, a five-time Grammy nominee, first recorded “Linus and Lucy” for This Side Up (1986). Since then, the song has been a staple of this composer, musician, and arranger. Benoit’s relationship with Guaraldi’s music led to his becoming composer for the Peanuts specials over the last ten years, including the 2000 recording Here’s to You, Charlie Brown.
A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on network television in 1965. This 40th anniversary collection not only pays tribute to the special’s staying power, but also features some of today’s finest R&B vocalists and smooth jazz artists. The disc opens with “Christmas Is Coming,” an upbeat orchestral rendition of the Guaraldi composition which is accented by crisp brass and elegant strings. Vanessa Williams follows with the ballad “Just Like Me,” composed by Benoit with longtime Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson. While Benoit has gotten much mileage out of “Linus and Lucy,” it is saxophonist Dave Koz who takes point on this presentation of the most recognizable theme in the series. The arrangement adds a South American flavor, with percussive seasoning.
R&B diva Toni Braxton delivers a light jazz rendition of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” sprinkling in a little scat during the guitar solo. Rick Braun brings his flugelhorn to “My Little Drum,” a charming piece inspired by “Little Drummer Boy.” Guitarist Norman Brown contributes Guaraldi’s “Skating,” gliding over the grooves with his own Bensonesque style, including a scat over the main melody. The Mendelson/Guaraldi classic “Christmas Time Is Here” appears twice, first by R&B crooner Brian McKnight and later by saxophonist Eric Marienthal.
After Gerald Albright’s straightforward approach to “O Tannenbaum,” the Rippingtons (with Marienthal on sax) follow with “Red Baron.” If you listen carefully, you might hear references to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which the group covered on an early album. Chaka Khan goes old school in a Sarah Vaughan sort of way on “The Christmas Song.” Benoit goes solo on “Für Elise,” the song Schroeder played during the original TV special. Marienthal closes with a reprise of “Christmas Time Is Here.”
While 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas is a jazz album, it’s sure to please fans of the Peanuts series as well as those who enjoy good Christmas music. This album wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, in a way that only Benoit, Guaraldi, and the Peanuts gang can deliver.
By Woodrow Wilkins Jr. - allaboutjazz.com
Technorati tag: Jazz