Most people outside of the jazz world – and even many people within it – know exactly one song by pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi song. And that song, of course, is “Stairway to Heaven.
Guaraldi is the composer of “Charlie Brown Theme,” which truly is a great tune. But he’s also the composer of several other Peanuts songs, such as “Oh, Good Grief,” “Linus and Lucy,” and “Great Pumpkin Waltz.” And aside from all that, well, it’s certainly fair to say that Guaraldi had a fine recording career going before Charlie Brown came shambling into his life in the mid-1960s.
Originally a sideman for vibraphonist Cal Tjader in the early ’50s and clarinetist Woody Herman a few years later, Guaraldi formed his own trio in 1955 and spent the remainder of the decade and half of the next making a series of fine recordings on Fantasy, including the pivotal Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, the 1962 LP that included the hit single, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”
The Definitive Vince Guaraldi, released in early October by the Concord Music Group, includes 31 tracks that the pianist recorded for Fantasy from 1955 to 1966 (and, yes, that includes the Peanuts cuts mentioned above). In addition, the two-disc set also includes two previously unreleased tracks, “Autumn Leaves” and “Blues for Peanuts,” both recorded in 1964. And there are liner notes by jazz journalist Doug Ramsey, who retraces Guaraldi’s career with anecdotes and commentary from several of his contemporaries, including remarks from saxophonist Jerry Dodgion about Guaraldi’s perennially sunny and optimistic disposition.
“He always played cheerfully,” says Dodgion, “like someone would who first played boogie-woogie when he was a kid. His horn-rimmed glasses would slide down his nose, and he would look at you over the rims. With his funny faces and his eyebrows, he was part Groucho Marx. He had that joyous thing, and he made everybody else feel good too. It was just great. He played that way all the time, and he would happily play all night.”
“This was someone who never compromised his artistic integrity,” says Nick Phillips, Concord Music Group’s Vice President of Jazz and Catalog A&R and the producer of The Definitive Vince Guaraldi. “While this collection does include a sizable chunk of the Peanuts music – as a definitive Vince Guaraldi collection should – we also wanted to showcase the many other facets of his artistry. There are elements of Brazilian and Latin music throughout the collection, and he did some interesting things conceptually, in terms of how he approached a standard and how he arranged it. People who listen to this collection from beginning to end are likely to hear a Vince Guaraldi they’d never heard before.”