Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Isaiah J. Thompson: “A Guaraldi Holiday” (2023) CD Review

Folks, it’s that time of year when artists are legally obligated to put out holiday albums. Among the many discs released toward the end of each year, there are always a few good ones. And what better music is there to kick off the holiday season than Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts themes? Pianist Isaiah J. Thompson, on his new album A Guaraldi Holiday, delivers not only the Christmas songs composed for the television special A Charlie Brown Christmas (which is still the absolute best Christmas special ever produced), but also music from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and even one tune from Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown. So this is an album that goes beyond Christmas. Most of the material was written by Vince Guaraldi, but there are a few songs composed by other artists, such as “What Child Is This,” which were recorded by Guaraldi for the specials. This is the second album Isaiah J. Thompson has released this year, the first being The Power Of Spirit. Also this year he won the American Pianist Award. Joining Isaiah J. Thompson on this album are John Pizzarelli on guitar, Anthony Hervey on trumpet, Alexa Tarantino on alto saxophone and flute, Julian Lee on tenor saxophone, Philip Norris on bass, and Kyle Poole on drums and percussion. Vocalists Tyreek McDole and Robbie Lee join the group each on one track, and additional vocal work is by Kaitlin Obien-Thompson and Maddie Pizzarelli.

The album opens with “Great Pumpkin Waltz,” a piece from It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. This rendition is warm and wonderful, and features some excellent work on saxophone. Where the track really starts to cook is during Thompson’s lead on piano in the second half. He delivers some fantastic stuff there. I only wish it went on a little longer. This track fades out. Also from It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown comes “Charlie Brown Theme,” a fun number with a catchy groove and theme. This track features a delicious lead on bass, plus some great stuff on guitar. The band seems to be having a glorious time with this song. Their joy is nearly palpable. Or perhaps that’s our own joy as we listen to this music. Isn’t this how all holidays should sound, how all holidays should feel?

We then move to Thanksgiving for a couple of numbers, starting with “Thanksgiving Theme.” This one begins more softly, thoughtfully. This theme might not be as familiar as most of the other tracks because this particular special isn’t as popular as A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but the music is good, particularly that saxophone. And when it comes time for Thompson’s lead on piano halfway through, the track starts to hop a bit. It retains its warmth, but takes on more energy, the drums and bass following the piano’s lead. It grows from there, taking on more of a big band vibe as the horns become prominent, but it’s the drum work that I most love in that section. That is followed by “Little Birdie,” this track featuring the vocal work of Tyreek McDole, who offers a bit of scat at the beginning and then totally throws himself into the spirit of the number. This song is about Woodstock, the bird that is Snoopy’s friend in the comic strip and the specials. “Don’t you worry, you just do what you can do.” This track also features some fantastic stuff on saxophone. This track moves and snaps during that instrumental section. The piano work is excellent, as you might expect, but also pay attention to that wonderful rhythm. I was not expecting this particular track to be a highlight of the disc, but it certainly is.

Isaiah J. Thompson then gets into the Charlie Brown Christmas special, which again is the absolute best Christmas television program, in large part because of the music. He opens this section with “O Tannenbaum,” which is also the first track from the Vince Guaraldi Trio album. Here we get some excellent stuff from Anthony Hervey, which makes this particular rendition a total delight. There is also some seriously cool work on piano, and there is another good lead on bass here. I love this rendition. That’s followed by “Christmas Is Coming.” The joy present right from the beginning of this track is almost enough to actually get me excited about the holiday, even this early in the season. This piece has always been a highlight of the music from the television special, and Isaiah J. Thompson does a great job with it, particularly on his lead, which is just about every shade of cool you can imagine. Toward the end of the track, there is some clapping and crowd noises, like the Christmas party has kicked into a higher gear. And that’s how it ends.

“Christmas Time Is Here” is the tune most people think of when they think of music from the Christmas special. It’s a beautiful piece, and has been covered a lot over the years. Isaiah J. Thompson’s rendition has a little more energy that is usually given the song, and moves at a somewhat faster pace. These guys are clearly excited that Christmas time is here. Robbie Lee then joins Isaiah J. Thompson on vocals for a sweet rendition of “The Christmas Song,” written by Mel Torme and Robert Wells. This track feels like that idealized version of home that we hold in our hearts, that image of folks seated around the living room, relaxing next to the Christmas tree after dark. Warmth, love, safety. It’s wonderful. Isaiah J. Thompson then puts his own spin on “What Child Is This?” This rendition has a different rhythm, a different energy, and will likely give you a fresh appreciation for the tune. Things get kind of loose, kind of wild in the second half, and there is a good deal of joy to the playing. This is a fun version, one of the more exciting versions I’ve heard.

Isaiah J. Thompson delivers a pretty rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” that begins as a solo piano piece, and halfway through adds vocals, some humming that is quite beautiful. It’s been a while since I’ve seen A Charlie Brown Christmas, but I don’t recall this song being in it. It was, however, in the 1986 special Happy New Year, Charlie Brown, but by then Vince Guaraldi had been dead for a decade. That’s followed by “Heartburn Waltz,” a song comes from Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown. It has a light, sweet vibe to it, and features flute, plus a good lead on bass. The album concludes with “Linus And Lucy,” which is the main Peanuts theme. Here the band members are pumping a tremendous amount of joy into their playing. Something about this tune makes me smile every time I hear it, and this rendition is particularly excellent, the perfect ending to a delightful album.

CD Track List

  1. Great Pumpkin Waltz
  2. Charlie Brown Theme
  3. Thanksgiving Theme
  4. Little Birdie
  5. O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree)
  6. Christmas Is Coming
  7. Christmas Time Is Here
  8. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
  9. What Child Is This? (Greensleeves)
  10. Auld Lang Syne
  11. Heartburn Waltz
  12. Linus And Lucy

A Guaraldi Holiday is scheduled to be released on December 1, 2023 through Outside In Music.

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