Linus and Lucy: A Critical Analysis of Covers

‘Tis the season.

You’ve heard it a million times, and damn if it isn’t one of the catchiest jazz melodies out there. Maybe this isn’t the most “sophisticated” or “advanced” jazz that you’ll put in your ears, but it’s good music.

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Vince Guaraldi’s compositions from A Charlie Brown Christmas are actual, swinging jazz compositions. If you’ve ever gone home for the holidays and heard Kenny G’s rendition of some holiday favorites, you can appreciate how awesome it is to have some actual mass-marketed swinging piano trio stuff. Vince Guaraldi, on piano, is accompanied by bassist Monte Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey on the original version of “Linus and Lucy”. You don’t need me to describe this one to you, but do give it another listen:

Well, Wynton Marsalis is certainly a “real” jazz artist, and he did a version of “Linus and Lucy” on their Joe Cool’s Blues album, released in 1994. Wynton Marsalis on trumpet is joined by Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson on sax, Victor Goines on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Eric Reed on piano, Benjamin Wolfe on bass, and Herlin Riley on drums here. This version starts with a slightly altered version of the familiar piano riff from Vince Guaraldi before the horns join to play the melody here, with ornamentation from the saxes and low growls from the trombone. At about 0:50, there’s a new horn section leading up to Wynton’s trumpet solo. This is followed by a trombone solo from Wycliffe Gordon starting at about 1:50. Eric Reed’s piano solo over some nice walking bass and swinging drums begins at about 2:30. At 3:25 or so, the septet returns to the tune’s head. This moves to a little vamp starting at about 4:15, and the song ends with a fadeout. Enjoyable enough, I’d say. Some small changes to Guaraldi’s arrangement, and the added horns make this an original way to do this tune.

An interesting version of this tune was done by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, with Bela Fleck on banjo, Victor Wooten on bass, and Future Man on percussion on their 2008 Jingle All the Way album. This version starts out with Wooten playing the familiar riff before Fleck joins in on banjo. Fleck’s banjo takes the melody then, as Wooten’s bass continues to hold down the low-end. The bridge at about 0:45 is well-suited to Fleck’s banjo. After the bridge, Wooten’s bass steps to the front to take the tune’s melody. At about 1:50, Wooten’s bass is again in the front as the band moves into a bluegrassy jam section. At about 2:15, Fleck’s banjo part is really great. Some drum breaks shortly after that, around 2:30 or so. This is a fun version of this tune, and adventurous enough to merit repeat listens. Fleck and Wooten both have some nice playing on here.

David Benoit’s 1985 version of “Linus and Lucy,” from his This Side Up album, featured Benoit on keyboards, Brandon Fields on sax, Paul Jackson, Jr. on guitar, Nathan East on bass, and John Robinson on drums. Right out of the gate, the synth sounds are very 1985. Not a good sign. Benoit plays the “Linus and Lucy” riff on piano, backed by synths and some very 1985 production. At about 1:10, we’ve moved into a Benoit piano solo. Smoooooth jazz here. That section is over at about 2:15, leading to a little breakdown, then the tune’s head returns around 2:30 or so. Good grief, what a blockhead, etc. [Editor’s note: It’s a trudge to get through but it’s helpful to note Benoit’s version if only because of his taking over as musical director for all the assorted holiday Peanuts specials after Guaraldi’s passing, a.k.a. the bad ones that no one really likes wherein during the second half hour of the ABC specials when families all across America go take a restroom break. Nevertheless, just because the mantle could use a little dusting doesn’t mean you don’t still keep your trophies up there.]

A far more successful adaptation of Guaraldi’s original is on Dave Brubeck’s 1991 Quiet as the Moon album. Brubeck on piano is joined by Bobby Militello on flute, Chris Brubeck on bass, and Randy Jones on drums. Brubeck’s version of this tune starts out with a slightly altered version of the famous riff on piano, coupled with the bass, before Militello’s flute joins to play the melody. Around 0:45, they play the bridge of this tune before moving into a sort of jam section between the flute and piano, with some nice bass-work from Chris Brubeck here. Check out the bass line at about 1:30 or so – nice! Around 1:45, Dave Brubeck’s piano steps to the front for a bluesy solo. At about 3:00, Brubeck’s piano drops out for the bass to play the “Linus and Lucy” riff, joined by the flute’s melody. After they play through the melody once, there’s another loose section serves as a flute solo for Militello. By 4:20 or 4:30, the rhythm section has dropped down to a whisper, leaving Militello’s flute nearly unaccompanied. He brings this version of “Linus and Lucy” to a close. This is a really fun version, with some great bass work on here to complement the piano riff.

A little bit of a left-field selection here – Brad Mehldau’s solo piano rendition of “Monk’s Dream” from his Live in Tokyo album, released in 2004. This version starts out, as advertised, as Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Dream.” Well, it’s not that simple – Mehldau’s version starts with some abstracted piano playing that touches on the “Monk’s Dream” melody, but it’s not played outright until about 0:45 into this tune. Once he plays through the melody, Mehldau continues through the head and into a strong solo improvisation based on the Monk melody. By about 2:00, he’s improvisation is moving farther and farther from the composed melody from Monk, while still very much based on “Monk’s Dream.” Around 3:00, though, there’s the brief tease of “Linus and Lucy” that brought us here. It’s a few seconds long, but sticks out as Mehldau continues an adventurous improvisation based on Monk’s tune, fragmenting the melody and adding his great harmonic sense to this tune as he has his way with the piano here. I really like the stuff he plays around 5:00, this piece just grows organically with some really wild harmony, touching here and there on “Monk’s Dream.” Around 6:40, Mehldau’s dense left hand work reveals that he’s been playing the blues all along, and then at 7:00 or so he returns to the tune’s head. Holy cow.

Happy holidays.

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