Camarada Salutes Vince Guaraldi’s ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ at The Conrad

Popular Christmas music flourished in the early 20th century, and those standards from the Great American Songbook that celebrate Rudolph, sleigh bells, and snowfall still have their charm. But Camarada Artistic Director Beth Ross Buckley raided a more sophisticated cache of holiday fare in the jazz works of Vince Guaraldi—especially the music he wrote for the 1965 television special A Charlie Brown Christmas—and presented them in Camarada’s concert Charlie Brown Jingles and Jazz Saturday at The Conrad in La Jolla.

(l. to r.) Duncan Moore, Justin Grinnell, Danny Green, Fred Benedetti, Allison Adams Tucker, Beth Ross Buckley & Tripp Sprague [photo (c.) Daniel Rumley]

Knowing that Beth Ross Buckley would assemble a stellar team of performers, Guaraldi fans quickly snapped up the tickets, and Saturday night’s procrastinators found not a single seat available at The Conrad’s box office.

Like Guaraldi’s score for the Emmy Award-winning television special, Camarada’s program offered a mix of the composer’s original works as well as his jazz-inflected arrangements of traditional carols such as “O Tannenbaum” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Of course, after half a century, his simple, inviting “Christmas Time Is Here” that opened the TV special has practically become a traditional carol. Something about Guaraldi’s approach to jazz, immediately engaging but less abstract than, say, that of Thelonious Monk or Art Tatum, continues to appeal to the wider audience beyond the cadre of confirmed jazz aficionados.

In Camarada’s instrumental ensemble sets—“Linus and Lucy,” “O Tannenbaum,” and “Christmas Time Is Coming”—pianist Danny Green’s bravura technique set the standard: impeccable runs, intoxicating flourishes, and unrelenting, deftly impulsive drive. His verve and skill was generously complemented by Tripp Sprague on flute, clarinet, and saxophone, Beth Ross Buckley on flute, Fred Benedetti on guitar, Justin Grinnell on bass, and percussionist Duncan Moore. Frequent Camarada collaborator Peter Sprague made all of the fleet arrangements for this accomplished sextet, but a last-minute illness sidelined him, and Fred Benedetti miraculously filled in for Peter on barely a day’s notice. Grinnell also stepped in for the ailing Mackenzie Leighton at the last moment, but the ensemble finesse of these players was so compelling, they sounded as if they had been playing together for months!

Versatile vocalist Allison Adams Tucker confidently met every challenge from jaunty scat singing in Guaraldi’s “Charlie’s Overture” to the traditional choral phrasing of the carol “What Child Is This?” to the relaxed croon of Mel Tormé’s iconic “The Christmas Song.” Tucker’s relaxed, meticulous diction and the warmth of her voice balanced the instrumental ensemble’s exciting, propulsive drive.

Peter Sprague’s “Christmas Is Love” made an auspicious debut on the program, although the composer’s laid-back, curvaceous melodies proved more immediately appealing than Randy Phillips’ opaque lyrics.

Camarada’s concert at The Conrad was my last performance for this year’s round seasonal concerts, and I could not have asked for a more rewarding finale.

Camarada presented ‘Charlie Brown Jingles and Jazz’ on December 17, 2022, at The Conrad Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla.

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