For many jazz fans, it’s the greatest holiday recording ever. For others, with its largely instrumental, non-caroling format, perhaps not. But the creative soundtrack work of pianist Vince Guaraldi’s trio, combined with the popularity of the first animated TV special from the popular Peanuts comic strip, made 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas the best-selling jazz title of all time. Still a holiday favorite, the soundtrack was recently reissued in formats including a deluxe expanded CD or double LP and a super deluxe five-disc boxed set or 80-track digital collection with 50 previously unheard outtakes.
The San Francisco-born Guaraldi’s left hand alone was known for creating memorable phrases with vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s band, and the pianist was already a Grammy winner on his own before TV producer Lee Mendelson hired him for this soundtrack. Recorded with bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli, A Charlie Brown Christmas would deservedly earn Guaraldi wider recognition—only a decade before he would die from a heart attack at age 47. Classic original instrumentals feature the darting figures of “Linus and Lucy” and cascading swing of “Skating,” along with the child-choir-enhanced “My Little Drum” and “Christmas Time Is Here.”
The initial 11-song soundtrack was fleshed out with traditional pieces like “O Tannenbaum” and classical material like Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” so the 80-track digital reissue includes mostly different mixes and takes of all the above, each with supple accompaniment by Marshall and Granelli. The 2022 remixes are front-loaded, and perhaps only audiophiles will notice differences from the original mixes, which come later in the program. Further in, there are trio starts and stops and audible commentary on the alternate takes—17 of “Christmas Is Coming” alone. Overkill to some, maybe, but for Guaraldi fans, hearing his different improvisational ideas take shape qualifies as a holiday year-round.