When it comes to Christmastime pop music, one record bests all comers: Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack to the 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas TV special. The LP mixes classic Yuletide bangers like "O Tannenbaum," "The Christmas Song" and "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," with some of Guaraldi's own compositions, including the rollicking "Linus and Lucy," the ethereal "Skating" and the melancholy "Christmas Time Is Here."
Guaraldi launched his piano career in the early 1950s, performing bebop and Latin jazz with Cal Tjader before striking out as a bandleader who specialized in Brazilian sounds. Guaraldi led many memorable sessions (Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus rules), but it is his Charlie Brown soundtrack that has made him a household name. The record is a masterpiece of subtlety and concision, with just three musicians responsible for almost every note. The soft brushes of drummer Jerry Granelli, the resonant vibrations of Fred Marshall's acoustic bass and the slanted rhythms of Guaraldi's keys generate an otherworldly sonic glow. If you celebrate Christmas and you're not bumping Charlie Brown daily between now and Dec. 25, you're nuts.
Now, thanks to A Charlie Brown Christmas: Live on Stage, the record is coming to life. The touring show recreates the story of the original TV special, with a live jazz trio performing Guaraldi's music and backing a show-closing Christmas carol singalong. The show hits the stage of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 17. Tickets are $21-$56.
To learn more about the show and what it's like to perform Guaraldi's music, we spoke last week with New York's Dave Klodowski, the show's pianist. He also acts in the program, playing the part of Schroeder.
So many people have nostalgic memories of the TV special and Guaraldi's music. Do you have a personal connection to them?
Absolutely. I've seen the Christmas special on TV pretty much every year since I was a little kid. It wasn't until I went to college and I started studying music that I fell in love with Vince Guaraldi's music. It's such great music to get you in the holiday spirit, and it's so much fun to play. It's challenging.
What was it about studying the music that made you appreciate it more?
It was so cool to learn the theory first and then go back and listen to the score and hear all the things I learned about, the way all the chords fit together.
How did you land the gig?
I had seen a friend of a friend's status on Facebook that they were looking for a Schroeder, a pianist who does a little bit of acting. I submitted and he called me right away and I had a live audition in a few days.
How long does the current tour last?
We started Nov. 16 and we end our tour on Dec. 30, just in time for New Year's. Luckily, we have some days off around Christmas. That will be nice.
How did you prepare for the show?
We rehearsed for three weeks in New York City. Things were kind of changing the entire time. This is the first time that a national tour has developed this production for the stage, so we had to figure out where we needed music and where to extend things and where to cut. It was a collaborative process. I've always been a pretty good sight reader, but I haven't done a lot of jazz music in life, except for high school jazz band, so there were definitely challenging parts for me.
Do you have to stick to Guaraldi's solos or do you get to play around?
Our music director gave us the sheet music of the actual score, and some of the solos he wanted exactly the same, so he took the time to transcribe some of the solos. But we do get to improvise a little bit.
The TV special is pretty short. How do you make it into a full show?
We stretched out certain things that we felt needed more love. It ends up being a full 80-minute show. There's a whole dance sequence during the rehearsal scene. [Ed. note: Heck yes.] And then after the play part ends we go into a Christmas concert and play eight or nine Christmas carols with the full cast.
Is the music difficult to play?
It's a very limited orchestra, just three parts. Me, being the pianist, I have a huge job in making the score come alive. I have to be the whole orchestra with my hands. I play all the chords and all the color tones. I try to bring it to life as much as I can, make it as big as I can, because we're playing big halls.
The music is unusual for a kids' show. Some of it is very melancholy.
You don't associate jazz music with children's stories. You see children's TV shows now and it's weird pop music. But "Christmas Time Is Here," it's such a slow ballad, and that's what we open the show with. It really works because it's such a juxtaposition.