David Benoit has been charming audiences with his jazzy Mr. Rogers-like personality for more than 40 years; and though he’s charted over 25 albums, it appears the sounds and music of Charlie Brown have his heart — and that heart is what he gave to The Carolina Theatre’s audience during his Christmas Tribute to Charlie Brown on Thursday, Dec. 11th. With the sad little Charlie Brown Christmas tree as his stage adornment, Benoit’s trio and chanteuse Selina Albright brought the music produced for Charlie Brown and his friends’ TV specials and movies over the past 50 years to Durham’s appreciative fans.
The trio opened with Vince Guaraldi’s “O, Christmas Tree” from the original Charlie Brown Christmas special produced for television in 1965. The Durham School of the Arts Choir joined in this opening tune and returned later on to accompany David Benoit’s trio and Albright on additional songs. The all-girl choir filled the back of the stage and evoked cheers of encouragement as they lent their young voices to the recognizable Christmas theme.
Though there are many holiday specials being performed throughout the Triangle during the season, the music of Charlie Brown celebrates the innocence and true meaning of Christmas. The story of Charlie Brown’s depression during the holiday season and the bullying he endures when Lucy convinces him to take part in a Christmas play highlights the modernization and commercialization of the holiday and concludes with the understanding of the true meaning of the holiday — underlined by Charlie’s smallest Christmas tree.
That tree, a symbol of the humble and fragile meaning of Christmas, was meant to be a statement against the fake aluminum trees that had become popular during the late 1950s/early 1960s, but has attained a much deeper symbolic meaning since the play/special originally aired. It represents the poverty of Jesus Christ, the indication that even the littlest and least significant of his kingdom would be afforded recognition. That simplicity is evident also in the music written for the special.
Each song has become recognizable through the years, both by the children who enjoyed that original special and who are now grandparents themselves, as well as by children who are now being introduced to the songs as seasonal classics. David Benoit’s commitment to presenting this Christmas concert each year underlines his own love for the music.
After “What Child is This,” the lights on the stage are lowered and a rich blue background haloes Benoit’s white head as he moves into a smooth jazz rendition of the familiar holiday tune. His fingers fly over the keys and accentuate each note in a manner that can only be described as graceful and easy. Effortless. Accompanying him is Jamie Tate on drums and David Hughes on electric bass. They are as laid back as he, but their talent is undeniably evident and, again, effortless.
Then David Benoit introduces the beautiful and soulful songstress Selina Albright, who has been gracing stages and albums with jazz greats such as Gerald Albright, Jeff Lorber, David Sanborn, and Peter White since her early teens. Her range and ability to delicately phrase as well as to wail magnificently enables her to bring a jazzy and warm element to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” And when she begins a sensual version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” one can imagine sitting around a fire, toasty and relaxed. Her last high note of that classic brings “bravas” from the audience and a standing ovation.
In another nod to the Charlie Brown legacy, David Benoit introduces a song from the musical Snoopy, written by Larry Grossman, the inspirational “Just One Person.” Selina Albright delivers the tune, based on the Charlie Brown theme that you must believe in yourself and support each other. The song, truly a theme against bullying, has been adopted by The Muppets through the years, yet it is not a lyric to be dismissed as childlike, and Albright’s rendition of it is both respectful and lovely.
David Benoit, tall and suited, an affable and immensely talented artist, composer, and Grammy award winner, becomes a bit silly when he and Albright present a skit based on Schroeder and Lucy, evoking some laughter from his comment (as Schroeder) that Beethoven is, indeed, relevant since he has a Facebook page. It is one of the warmest moments of the show and reveals the convivial working relationship that he and Albright have.
From there, they move into the up-tempo jazz standard “Freedom at Midnight,” which Benoit wrote for “Foreplay” in 1986, then into a beautiful tribute to Vince Guaraldi, who composed the music for the “Peanuts” animated specials. Only 47 when he passed away, he left an incredible legacy of music and effectively introduced children and the world to his jazz through the compositions he produced for Charlie Brown and his friends.
As a backdrop shows each of the “Peanuts” characters, Benoit plays their signature songs, a series of pieces that play like the score of a generation. It is a fitting tribute to a composer who has left his mark on American music done by a jazz musician who has also paved his own avenues in the world of jazz.
After a brief intermission, Benoit takes the stage again to play some of his own music and announces that a new album is in the making, all new songs that he will record with jazz vocalist Jane Monheit in January.
Then the Durham School of the Arts Choir comes back to perform “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” After the song, Benoit has a brief conversation with the girls, answering some of their questions, a delightful moment especially since some of the girls have fans in the audience.
Selina Albright returns to perform one of Benoit’s own compositions, “Just Like Me”; and the choir accompanies her on several additional songs from the Broadway musical You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.
The show closes with a few more traditional Christmas songs made new and jazzy by David Benoit’s musicality. One encore and the trio joins fans in the lobby to sign CDs and to talk about his new project, a truly fitting way to put a jazzy spin on the most spiritual of holidays.
DAVID BENOIT CHRISTMAS TRIBUTE TO CHARLIE BROWN (The Carolina Theatre, Dec. 11th in Fletcher Hall in Durham).
SHOW: http://www.carolinatheatre.org/events/david-benoit-christmas-tribute-charlie-brown and https://www.facebook.com/events/261972043982957/.
PRESENTER: http://www.carolinatheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/CarolinaTheatreDurham, https://twitter.com/CarolinaDurham, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolina_Theatre.
David Benoit (Bakersfield, CA-born contemporary jazz pianist, composer, and conductor): http://benoit.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/davidbenoitmusic (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/dbmusic (Twitter page), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Benoit_%28musician%29 (Wikipedia), and http://www.youtube.com/user/davidbenoitmusic (YouTube page).
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Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.com/.