Or, a Christmastime observation
I’m relying on holiday tunes more heavily than usual this year to keep the spirit of the season alive in relative isolation. I can’t help listening a little more closely, perhaps only because I can. Among the records on regular rotation is, for self-evident reasons, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack to the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. And I’m coming to conclude that it might just be the strongest collection that the school of jazz has produced thus far.
I don’t say this because the songs are the most virtuosic ever to be committed to vinyl or even necessarily superlative compositions in and of themselves—with the exception of “Linus and Lucy”—but because this album has almost singlehandedly induced generations of people to accidentally enjoy jazz.
Jazz is a maligned, polarizing genre. People use it against one another: it’s either “I like jazz, which makes me sophisticated, therefore I’m better than you” or “Jazz is for stuck-up snobs, and I see through that façade, therefore I’m better than you.” Over a couple days in the studio, these guys made the brilliant move of filtering the elements of jazz through traditional Christmas melodies and original additions, acclimating even the most casual listeners and giving them something simultaneously accessible and novel. The improvisation, which seems to be the component that intimidates or turns off many avowed non-fans, is low-stakes and easygoing in this setting: “O Tannenbaum” is a relaxed meditation within a familiar chordal context. And the set of lyrics to “Christmas Time is Here” beats the set of lyrics to “Sleigh Ride” by leaps and bounds. (That was an orchestral piece for a reason. Leave Leroy Anderson alone.)
Although I think I prefer the instrumental anyway; it has a certain inimitable atmospheric melancholy. The brushwork on the drums is just otherworldly. It sounds cold.
The whole really exudes a wintry chill, the sonic interpretation of a Christmas fraught with loneliness and depression, which is what the TV special is all about. And yet there remains a lightness, a levity, a spark of hope that there is some rhyme or reason to the whole holiday rigamarole. Regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas, you can identify with that search for higher meaning, especially at the end of another year. Jazz is a precarious balance of order and chaos, freedom and structure, a host of barely contained ideas and themes gingerly strung together. Isn’t that Christmas?
So that’s what sets this album apart. It manages to become the very thing it attempts to describe, and, in doing so, unite listeners of all musical proclivities. It rings true; it lets disbelievers know that there is truth in jazz. Despite your protestations that you could never or would never ‘get into’ the genre, if you like this album, you kind of already have.
I also think piano-based jazz is easier to digest for those who are not immersed in the oeuvre. Or maybe I’m biased toward the piano. Or maybe I’ve drunk too much wine over the past two weeks to have any regard for the people who would say that the point of jazz is not to be easy to digest. Or maybe it’s the Italian in me, going for composers with Italian names.
If anything, I’m reminded with each passing post that the Peanut I resemble most is Linus, as I am full of facts and quotations that no one has any use for. Maybe I should start dragging a blanket around too.