Forget Boney M! Let Charlie Brown jazz up your Christmas playlist

Beyond cheesy carols and tinned festive muzak are some pretty decent tunes to get you in the spirit

15 December 2019 - 00:00
By Andrew Donaldson
Vince Guaraldi Trio's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'.
Image: Supplied Vince Guaraldi Trio's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'.

Deck the halls with holly and put on a festive album. The jingle bells of cash registers and the piped strains of shopping mall seasonal favourites Boney M does put the Grinch on the notion of cool Yule grooves. But Santa rewards those who have been good and there really are some honest to gosh gems out there.

Perhaps the classiest of all holiday albums is the Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy), the soundtrack to a 1965 TV show that featured Charles Schulz's lovable characters. The album, which in recent years has been re-issued on green, red and even snowflake-patterned vinyl, is also said to be the most influential jazz record of all time. Which, if you think about it, makes sense.

Those who wax lyrical about the wonders of Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue or John Coltrane's Blue Train would have already been hip to the form, as it were, when they first encountered those groundbreaking LPs. But for the millions of American kids who sat down to watch a cartoon show about the Peanuts gang's attempt to stage a Nativity play, the rolling breakdowns of pianist Guaraldi's arrangements of such standards as O Tannenbaum and What Child Is This was their first taste of the bottomless idiom that is jazz.

The Charlie Brown project was not without some controversy. At the time, studio bosses at CBS fretted over the show's themes of depression, anxiety, alienation, secularism and the way it criticised the growing commercialisation of Christmas.

The suits also hit the roof over Guaraldi's score, which they felt was too weird and dark for the kids. Despite such corporate grumblings, the TV special's premiere was seen by almost half of the US population — something like 15-million homes — and the poignancy of Guaraldi's low-key and melancholic soundtrack continues to enthral.

Guaraldi's drummer, Jerry Granelli, told Pitchfork magazine on the album's 50th anniversary in 2015: "Part of the magic of the whole thing is that nobody had any big plans while making the soundtrack, like, 'This is it!' We just played, man. It's a jazz record. It was pretty natural and real. People heard the heart in it.

"Honestly, I turned left creatively with my career after that and never thought about it for a while; jazz musicians are sometimes not as open as they may seem when it comes to people having hits or things crossing over — everybody gets all uppity. But then I matured enough to realise that it went way beyond music. It was the first entry point to jazz for a lot of people. And now that I've got my credentials as an artist, I'm proud to be a part of it."

Elsewhere, those looking for a livelier, less than silent night's playlist for their festive bashes could do worse than consider some of the more fringe offerings out there. The guitar-dominated surf-rock instrumentals of Los Straitjackets, four dudes who only ever play in Mexican wrestling masks, may be an acquired taste for some, but their 2002 album 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets! (Yep Roc Records) tackles such chestnuts as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Feliz Navidad with a retro-fitted, reverb-drenched splendour.

Wilder still is We Three Kings (Yep Roc Records) by The Rev Horton Heat, which takes on such cheesy seasonal tunes like Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Coming to Town with suitably unhinged psychobilly fervour.

And when the party's over, why not plump for the low-key yet highly stylised retro-kitsch of She & Him — the quirky duo of actress and singer Zooey Deschanel and and indie star M Ward - as one stumbles through the piles of shredded wrapping paper and empty bottles.

Their first holiday album, 2011's critically acclaimed A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge Records), drew inspiration from a slew of holiday records by the likes of the Carpenters, the Beach Boys and dozens of others. Musically, it was a winningly simple affair: chiefly Ward's guitar, with the odd bit of percussion, ukelele and organ, and Deschanel's vocals which, when in a lower register like her handling of the old Elvis hit, Blue Christmas, are on the button.

The album has since become a favourite with the indie cognoscenti, and the duo repeated the process with 2016's Christmas Party (Columbia Records). This time they fleshed out with a backing band and guests, bringing a more standard production to favourites like Run Run Rudolph and Let It Snow. For all that, it's still a charmer.