Composed and arranged by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, the score to Charles Schulz's television special A Charlie Brown Christmas has become synonymous with the holiday season, especially in Atlanta. Persistently selling out performances, multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey Bützer and pianist T.T. Mahony pay homage to the music for the sixth consecutive year, with two shows at the Earl.
Nearly 50 years after originally airing in 1965 (good grief!), A Charlie Brown Christmas still evokes the nostalgia of Christmas morning while emphasizing the reason for the season as the dejected leader of the Peanuts gang grapples with the overwhelming commercialism of the holidays — a theme that's become increasingly poignant in the modern era.
With Mahony on piano, Bützer on drums, and Robby Handley handling bass duties, the performance unfolds as clips from the cartoon play out behind the trio, opening with Linus' recitation from the Book of Luke: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men ... That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
Even though most of the performers are non-believers, the moment works. "It's honest, and people just really love it," Bützer says.
Bützer, who created the show while brainstorming ideas for other projects, including a David Lynch-themed production, wanted to avoid working with a larger ensemble and dealing with performers' various and hectic schedules. Instead, he focused on his favorite holiday record, A Charlie Brown Christmas, written for a trio.
One of the best-selling holiday albums of all time, Charlie Brown is an innocent and introspective score featuring both traditional and original songs, such as the instantly recognizable "Linus and Lucy." The often-melancholy tones in "O Tannenbaum" paint scenes of first snows, and more upbeat tracks such as "Skating" highlight complex polyrhythms and soft, brushing percussion. Unlike many overbearingly cheery Christmas carols, Guaraldi's score explores the wistful side of the holidays in an album that's rich with reflection, regret, and redemption.
More traditional songs such as "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Christmas Time is Here" feature a chorus of childrens' vocals. But rather than enlist a bunch kids, Bützer and Mahony use female voices from local bands, including Carrie Hodge (What Happened to Your Fire, Tiger?), Andrea Rogers (Night Driving in Small Towns), and Cassi Costoulas of Bützer's band, the Bicycle Eaters. A Charlie Brown Christmas is very simple, but it moves," Costoulas says. "Even if you didn't have the Charlie Brown association in your head, you'd still be hearing a whimsical, childlike story. It's a very stand-alone score."
Guaraldi's score is insanely popular during the holiday season, but Bützer initially feared that performing the show every year would become monotonous. However, the improvisational nature of the music, driven by solos and extended riffs, keeps the group's momentum growing and flourishing. "We don't get sick of it because we can't just close our eyes and play it," Bützer says. "It's still really spontaneous. We still have to communicate with each other."
The cartoon and the score may be entering their golden years, but the wholesome message of defying commercialism and celebrating your fellow man remains as relevant as the day the special first aired. "When we pass through some pretty tough times economically, we're brought back to appreciating the simple things," Mahony says. "The people around us — the things that really make life good."