In Chicago, Artists Celebrate a Guaraldi Christmas Classic


From left to right: Andrew Vogt, Mikel Avery (obscured) Hunter Diamond, Quentin Coaxum and Stu Mindeman perform selections from A Charlie Brown Christmas at the Hubbard Street Lofts in Chicago on Dec. 7.

(Photo: © 2016 Rebecca Ciprus)

Holiday festivities have been underway since Thanksgiving, but nothing really rings in the Christmas spirit like hearing Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. On Dec. 7, the Jazz Record Art Collective (JRAC), a showcase featuring jazz and art, hosted their second annual Christmas show with the Quentin Coaxum Quintet, which provided a live interpretation of this classic holiday music album. Accompanying the Coaxum Quintet on canvas and paints were Lewis Achenbach and Ronan Dexter.

JRAC, a small venue located in the Hubbard Street Lofts in Chicago, showcases some of the city’s brightest talents, but with a theme—each group picks a well-known jazz album to perform. While playing, a studio artist produces art as well, usually a portrait of the group and music, making for an off-the-cuff night of sonic and visual artistry.

Playing selections from the album and sharing stories about its creation, the quintet established a nostalgic mood, recalling the coolly festive atmosphere of the original recording. They made it their own, too, infusing the arranged pieces with elongated moments of improvisation.

The concert began with the album’s opening track, “O Tannenbaum,” featuring Coaxum on trumpet accompanied by pianist Stu Mindeman. With an airy, yet commanding tone, Coaxum layered the melody atop a subtle piano line. In just that first moment, the quintet’s passion for recreating such an essential album was clear—even those not playing were listening intently, heads bowed or looking up with faces of focus.

As the intro and head came to a close, the drums and bass kicked in for Coaxum’s solo. Calmly dancing across melodic lines, Coaxum shifted from loose and bluesy to technical and precise at the drop of a hat, but the use of simplicity in his playing made for an easily digestible solo.

Hunter Diamond, the quintet’s tenor saxophonist, was a similarly poetic improviser, beginning his solo with only a few short notes surrounded by a lot of space. Although the two didn’t play the head together, both of their solos indicated that they would blend together perfectly.

Following the strong opener, Coaxum began telling the history of the album—definitely worth a read—while also threading in personal thoughts, such as how listening to A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first time he remembered really enjoying music.

The next tune, which was not on the album, was nonetheless integral to its origin. Guaraldi’s arrangement of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” was the piece that Lee Mendelson, the producer and co-creator of the animated A Charlie Brown Christmas special, heard on the radio before contacting the pianist to compose the score. The quintet shrank to a trio of Mindeman, bassist Andrew Vogt and drummer Mikel Avery for their rendition, which was near identical, showing off their talents to reproduce Guaraldi’s recording.

No matter the tune, the magic of Guaraldi’s recordings was present. But it takes a special sort of energy from the musicians to provide the accompanying feelings of warmth and reminiscence, and the Quentin Coaxum Quintet succeeded in that regard.

The concert certainly had its moments of experimentation and spontaneity while sticking to the original inspiration throughout. While they didn’t stretch time too much—they stuck to three to five minutes a tune, just like on the album—there was a great deal more improvisation in their live set.

One of the most notable moments of improvisation was during “Surfin’ Snoopy”—the music that plays while Snoopy is decorating his doghouse. Coaxum prefaced the tune sharing that this was always one of the funniest scenes to him. That childlike wonder was manifest in his playing as he and Diamond traded bars.

The following piece, “Christmas Time Is Here”, featuring Diamond, was as smooth as a mug of hot cocoa, a beautiful palate-cleanser for the final few songs.

Closing with “The Christmas Song,” the group traded melody from piano to trumpet to tenor atop warm bass and subtle drums. The final chord segued quickly into gracious applause. A Charlie Brown Christmas was recorded to instill a feeling of goodness and festivity. With care and devotion, the Quentin Coaxum Quintet brought forth exactly that during their performance. DB

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