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REVIEW: David Benoit and A Charlie Brown Christmas at The Dakota

Jazz pianist David Benoit, percussionist Dan Schnell, vocalist Courtney Fortune, and bassist Roberto Vally played the Dakota Jazz Club last night in Minneapolis, MN.

Last night’s performance at The Dakota traces back to a television show from 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas. The music for that animated special – the first to be based on the Peanuts newspaper comic by Charles Schulz – was written by jazz composer and pianist Vince Guaraldi.

Guaraldi died far too young, at age 47, in 1976, after composing the music for more than a dozen Peanuts specials and documentaries, many of which were big hits. Children took notice: in the liner notes of Wynton & Ellis Marsalis’s album Joe Cool’s Blues, Wynton wrote, “When I was a boy the only time you would hear jazz on television was when Charlie Brown came to town.” (The title of that album is itself a reference to the Peanuts character Snoopy.)

Another future musician whose life was changed by those TV specials was David Benoit, who noted last night that he had been a big fan of Charlie Brown. After seeing – and hearing – A Charlie Brown Christmas, he decided to become a jazz pianist. Decades later, he is one of the major figures in contemporary jazz, with dozens of albums – including Here’s to You, Charlie Brown!: 50 Great Years! (2000) – and three Grammy nominations to his name.

All of this added to a lot of Peanuts last night. Songs from the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas dominated the evening’s set. The best-known were “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time is Here” (with a lovely vocal performance by Courtney Fortune), but also “Great Pumpkin Waltz”, “Thanksgiving Theme”, and Guaraldi’s arrangements of “O Tanenbaum” and “Greensleeves”. Benoit also offered the audience some of his own classics like “Every Step of the Way” and “Kei’s Song”.

Veering from the Peanuts theme, but keeping the holiday vibe, Fortune delivered impressive renditions of several holiday standards – or, at least, jazzed-up versions of said standards: Barbra Streisand’s version of “Jingle Bells”, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…)”, and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. Along with Fortune, Benoit was superbly supported by Dan Schnell on percussion (including sleigh bells!) and Roberto Vally on the upright electronic bass.

Aside from the pandemic, Benoit has been touring almost continually since 1977. During the lockdown, he did a driveway concern for neighbors with his wife; now, back on the road, his schedule would be formidable even for someone younger than his 68 years. After leaving Minneapolis, he is scheduled to perform tonight in Kansas City, and tomorrow in Omaha. 

Benoit has been described as “one of the founding fathers of contemporary jazz”.  While some musicians can be defensive about having their work labeled as “contemporary” or “smooth” jazz, Benoit is definitely not. “Frankly,” he has remarked, “the straight-ahead jazz community gets a little too arrogant for me …. I find the smooth jazz community to be a little bit friendlier. And I like playing to more than 10 people.”

Far from just 10 people, The Dakota was almost completely full of people enjoying the return to live music, and appreciating the opportunity to spend time with familiar friends: David Benoit, jazz music, and Charlie Brown.

Brian Bix