Octave Records warmly invites everyone to celebrate the holiday spirit with Charlie Brown Goes to The Nutcracker by the Ron LeGault quintet. The band puts a jazz spin on the beloved Charlie Brown soundtrack music and the holiday classic The Nutcracker, recorded with extraordinary sound using Octave Records’ exclusive Pure DSD high-resolution audio process.
Pianist Ron LeGault has been performing his Charlie Brown Goes to The Nutcracker show to packed audiences at the St Julien Hotel in Boulder, Colorado for more than 10 years. Recorded live in the studio, the album captures the confident yet relaxed interplay that only comes from years of playing together, with Ron joined by Andrew Vogt (tenor sax, baritone sax, clarinet, flute), Curtis Fox (trombone), Dave Weinand (bass) and Andreas Schmid (drums). The quintet performs a host of Charlie Brown tunes like the familiar “Linus and Lucy,” the “Charlie Brown Theme,” “Christmas is Coming,” and others, along with jazz-laced versions of pieces from The Nutcracker including the iconic holiday classic “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” Added to the mix, the quintet plays a wry, swinging take on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
The album was recorded, mixed and produced by Paul McGowan, with assistance from Jessica Carson and Ron LeGault, who did all of the album’s arrangements. It was mastered by Gus Skinas. Charlie Brown Goes to The Nutcracker features Octave’s premium gold disc formulation, and the discs are playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible by using any SACD player or a PS Audio SACD transport. In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available for purchase and download, including DSD 256, DSD 128, DSD 64, and DSDDirect Mastered 352.8 kHz/24-bit, 176.2 kHz/24-bit, 88.2 kHz/24-bit, and 44.1 kHz/24-bit PCM. (SRP: $19 – $39, depending on format.)
I talked with Ron about the album, the band, and his musical experiences.
Frank Doris: Charlie Brown Goes to the Nutcracker just has a fun feel to it; you're doing this music that's so well-loved. What gave you the idea to do it? I noted that you've been doing this set at the St Julien Hotel in Boulder for 10 years.
Ron LeGault: It's a four-star hotel. It has music five nights a week; jazz, salsa, Latin and rock. It's a really good place.
Ron LeGault. Photo by Dan Kozlowski.
FD: This music is ingrained in American culture and it brings back great memories.
RL: We have a lot of kids that come to the shows now who know the Charlie Brown movie (A Charlie Brown Christmas). How old is that? 30, 40 years old…
FD: Let me check…1965!
I love the arrangements, and the fact that you’re putting your own spin on it, and even quoting from other songs. What inspired you to do this?
RL: I was working in this big band. The leader of the band, Don Elwood, had a Christmas book (a book of sheet music arrangements) and he was trying to get some work, and he goes to this coffee shop in Fort Collins that has a stage and live music. He says to the guy, “we have this big band and a Christmas show.” And the guy says, “nah, nah, I don't think a big band will go over in here. But you know, I always wanted to do a Charlie Brown Christmas show.” So Don says, “yeah, we can do that.”
And he calls me on the phone and says, “Hey, can we do this?”
FD: That sounds about right. (laughter)
RL: I said, “sure, of course we can!” So I think, OK, well, I've been playing piano for long enough to have some stuff like that. I am looking at my Christmas music, and I also have the scores to all of the Duke Ellington tunes on his The Nutcracker Suite album. So I said, “wait a minute, maybe I could put this together.”
The whole idea was two-fold. One is that everybody knows the Charlie Brown stuff and they like to hear it, but it is not new. It's not going to hold your attention, so you kind of need a hook. And so, this gave me the chance to put some [musical] hooks in there. The other thing is that I needed to make it interesting enough for the guys in the band.
FD: Is this your regular band?
RL: I've had this quintet for about 12 years now and of the guys on the record, all of them have been with me at least five years.
FD: The album sounds like it's a band that's been together for a while. It has kind of a looseness to it. Not saying you guys aren't tight, but it has kind of a relaxed feel. I would've guessed that you guys didn't just get together and start reading off the music that day or something.
RL: I have a regular monthly gig at the St Julien. I also do a weekly gig in Denver. So yeah, we get a chance to play together a lot.
FD: When did you start playing, and why piano and not trumpet or something else?
RL: When I was born, my mother bought a piano, because she played piano. When I got into third grade, I was going to Catholic school and one of the nuns said she was going to start teaching piano. My mother [suggested I] take lessons. When I got in the eighth grade, I became substitute organist in the church, playing a pipe organ.
I developed an interest in jazz through my dad. He was a great jazz fan, and he had this great collection of 78s. He knew 'em all, the Dorseys and Jimmy Lunceford and Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and all those.
I got into high school and there was a senior who could play jazz. I had been studying classical to that point. So, I started studying with this teacher and he developed me into a jazz player. Then I went to college to become an English teacher, but I didn't do that. I studied piano while I was in college. I went to graduate school for accounting, went into business, and was in business until I retired, but I never gave up playing. And in a lot of those years, I had my own groups. I even had my own 16-piece big band for a while outside of Philly.
While I was never a full-time musician per se, I played enough and I never gave it up.
FD: I never really made a living out of it either, although I managed to pay a large portion of my college expenses by playing in a band. But I went to a state school and man, tuition was so cheap back then.
RL: Frank, I did the same thing. I went to a state school, and I used to teach piano and play gigs, and I paid my way through college.
FD: Do you arrange all this stuff? Or is it kind of like half-arranged, and for the rest of the album you do whatever.
RL: No, it's all arranged. Everything is written out. I make modifications [to the Charlie Brown show music] every year, and [make sure the guys can read it]. One of the reasons is that I have to have subs from time to time because my gig is not the highest-paying gig, and the guys in the band can get some monster paying gigs, and I have to be able to let 'em go to do that. So I have to have subs [from time to time], and I have to be able to have a sub just come in and run [the music] down with me for an hour and then not have a problem and maintain the integrity of the show.
FD: How did you meet the people at Octave Records and wind up doing this album?
RL: Paul (McGowan) came up and said he’d seen us a couple of times at St. Julien on one of our regular gigs, and said, “hey, I'd like to record you guys.” And we just said, “yeah, okay.” Didn't pay much attention to it and didn't realize he was [owner of] a label. Right. Typical musician sh*t.
FD: Yeah, somebody comes up to you and says, “I can make you guys big. Just hook up with me and I'll make you stars…”
RL: That was two or three years ago. The guys in the band were saying, “we’ve got to record this because it's just too good.” We made some plans for recording, and then COVID hit. Then we came out of COVID and I figured I would do it this year. The trombone player says, “I've been talking to Octave Records about sound equipment, and they have a recording studio. Why don't we get down and see 'em together?” I went in there to go to Paul's studio, figuring I'm going to hire the studio and hire the musicians and do what you do to make your own record. And the conversation turned around the other way. Paul wanted us to be on the label. I agreed.
FD: It’s a different business model. It's very much in favor of the musicians and not the usual kind of thing.
RL: Well, I know the usual kind of thing. I was the CFO of Polydor Records in New York.
FD: No kidding.
RL: I was [also] the operations manager for East Coast distribution for Warner Brothers for a while.
FD: I should interview you sometime about that. [Ron and I made plans to do that in the future.]
RL: I was there when the ECM label came out.
I got to meet Paul and he [asked when I could] go in the studio, and I said, “I can commit anytime because this band doesn't have to rehearse. We've been doing this for so long.” So (Octave Records’) Jessica (Carson) says, “how many days do you think you're going to need?” I said, “two sessions.” She said, “you can't do it in two sessions!” Well, we did it in two sessions.
FD: What was it like to listen to your music played back in such sound quality?
RL: It's incredible. It's like live music, right there.
FD: What piano players or musicians were your biggest influences, and who do you like today?
RL: Well, my biggest influence was Oscar Peterson. And in fact, I've spent the last 25 years trying to get rid of my Oscar Peterson licks.
FD: Just play half the notes!
RL: Then later on it was Bud Powell and Bill Evans.
FD: I'm kind of torn between Evans and Monk. I can't pick either one. I'd have to go to a desert island with both.
RL: I wouldn't want to choose, but Monk wasn't an influence [on my] playing.
FD: He's so individualistic. Bill Evans makes it sound so easy and flowing, whereas Monk is from another planet. What about new piano players on the scene?
RL: Vijay Iyer. Tamir Hendelman, although Tamir, he's more in the Oscar school. He's a fabulous piano player. There's a guy from Poland that I've been listening to, Marcin Wasilewski. And a piano player in Paris, Manuel Rocheman. These guys are coming out of the modern sound that comes out of Bill Evans, and are in the unstructured environment that Miles Davis introduced. Calling it modal is a wrong tag, because modal conjures up a sound, but it's like it's free [jazz], but it's not free. And it's structured, but it's not structured, and it’s really good stuff.
FD: Do you have any favorite tracks on the Charlie Brown Goes to the Nutcracker album?
RL: “Linus and Lucy.” That's our favorite. We play that every gig.
FD: When you did the arrangements, did you think in terms of having certain instruments in certain solo spots?
RL: Oh yes, absolutely. I want to make sure that everybody has a chance to solo, and there's not too much of any one guy. They're jazz musicians. You give a guy a chance, and next thing you know, the guy wants to solo on everything!
FD: And you don't even have a guitar player in the band!
RL: I don't. Don't have one of those worst offenders!
FD: I love the fact that you have a trombone. That's just such a classic jazz sound that you don't hear as much of as I'd like these days. Even in jazz, how many trombones are in the classic jazz quartets and quintets? It's a refreshing sound. And I think you might have recorded an album that will prove to be timeless.
RL: When we play [the Charlie Brown show] at the St Julien, we pack the place. We have kids in pajamas sitting on the floor. People come to the show and it's become part of their Christmas holiday.
FD: Maybe now this album will become a holiday tradition for a lot more people.