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Background Music: "Corner Pocket", from Johnny Varro's Swing 7: Ring dem Bells, 2008, Arbors Records, with permission.

Johnny Varro's Swing 7: Ring dem Bells

Ring dem Bells

Personnel

  • Johnny Varro: Piano and Arrangements
  • Randy Sandke: Trumpet
  • Dan Barrett: Trombone
  • Ken Peplowski: Clarinet, Alto Sax
  • Scott Robinson: Tenor Sax
  • Frank Tate: Bass
  • Joe Ascione: Drums

Discography

07-1
Nola Studios
W. 57th St., NY
6-7 Nov 2007

Label

Arbors ARCD 19362

Description

“This is a true band, jazz synergy in action, so much more than four horns and a rhythm section. Many live sessions and recordings – with fine players – can seem tedious when the opening ensemble gives way to a piano solo, then a series of horn solos, every time. Each performance unfolds according to its own satisfying logic, and each track has its own surprises. There is truth in advertising, for the Swing 7 honestly lives up to its name.”
– From the album notes by Michael Steinman

Here's what the critics have to say

See 2009 review by Jeff Krow in Audiophile Audition

Selections

  • Corner Pocket
  • Stompy Jones
  • Your Is My Heart Alone
  • Sweet Substitute
  • Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise
  • Ring dem Bells
  • Only A Rose
  • Come Sunday
  • Suddenly It΄s Spring
  • Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble
  • You Stepped Out of a Dream
  • Minute Waltz
  • One, Two Button Your Shoe
  • Buddy Bolden΄s Blues
  • Sonny Speaks

Notes by Michael Steinman

When Johnny Varro sits down at the piano, his playing is instantly recognizable and imaginative, whether he's swinging a jazz classic or musing on a ballad. Musicians, more so than ordinary mortals, are known by the company they keep, and he's played alongside Ruby Braff, Bobby Hackett, Kenny Davern, Eddie Condon, and Sidney Catlett, among others. But about fifteen years ago, he began to think that free-wheeling jazz, which had given him so much pleasure, was not enough. Johnny told me, "I've played so much loose jazz all my life. When I put the first Swing 7 together, it was something I always wanted to do, to have a little organization to play some of the music of the guys I've loved over the years, like Ellington, Benny Carter, and even more progressive, like the Dave Pell Octet."

Johnny has a deep affection for songs that have not been overexposed, and this disc is a refreshing mixture of classic jazz, operetta, singular melodies, even the novel pairing of the two Freddies, Chopin and Green. He says, "You play standards like Lady Be Good and Honeysuckle Rose often enough, you start looking for something new. At a jazz party, when you work with seven or eight guys on the bandstand, everyone has to know the song. That doesn't always happen, so we go back to As Long As I Live."

This versatile band shows off Johnny's supple arrangements. "I write very simply, at least I think I do. And these guys know my style – it's like my piano style, that kind of phrasing. So they know what to expect, and they can handle anything." This CD, the fourth by the Swing 7, gives its players freedom, and Johnny's streamlined charts are inspiring, never formulaic. His backgrounds and figures make their point and move on, propelling and framing the soloists without ever getting in the way. Listen especially for the little flares – like jazz firecrackers – that Johnny uses to launch soloists.

This is a true band, jazz synergy in action, so much more than four horns and a rhythm section. Many live sessions and recordings – with fine players – can seem tedious when the opening ensemble gives way to a piano solo, then a series of horn solos, every time. Each performance unfolds according to its own satisfying logic, and each track has its own surprises. Listen for the duet between Johnny and Frank midway through Only A Rose, for one example of many.

The Swing 7 features "magnificent musicians, hand-picked" for the session. "I couldn't find a better group of players anywhere, any time. These guys haven't seen the music before, but they read it right off. I like everything they do!" Johnny himself is an engaging pianist, someone whose melodic inventions linger, whose rhythmic drive never falters. He supports and encourages the ensemble, the soloists masterfully. One of his inspirations was Billy Kyle, long associated with John Kirby and Louis Armstrong, serious names to put on a jazz resume. "Every now and then, I play something of his, and I say, 'Thank you, Billy!'"

Corner Pocket, written by Freddie Green, ticks along briskly, and everyone shines in this neat introduction to the Swing 7. Listeners can settle back in aesthetic comfort as soon as the rhythm section announces itself, blending Johnny's speaking lines, Frank's resonant support, and Joe's fluent drive. All this without a rhythm guitar in evidence! Ken's alto solo is mellifluous but driving (with a hint of Truckin'). Talk about true professionals: Corner Pocket was the first performance of the day at the first session.

Stompy Jones is Johnny's salute to an irreplaceable Fifties studio meeting of Ellington, Johnny Hodges, Harry "Sweets" Edison, and Jo Jones. "I did this not to steal an arrangement but to pay homage to it. The trumpet solo has the first bars of Sweets' solo for Randy to play. Then four choruses, all Randy, except for the last eight bars, where I just introduce a little bit of Sweets on the end." In the studio, he modestly said, "It's got a good feel, this tune – this tune does it automatically." While the horns hum behind him, Ken nods affectionately to Hodges before going his own way; Dan incorporates a famous Ellington riff. Scott never takes a predictable path to get anywhere, but he always arrives in fine idiosyncratic style. Joe's thoughtful drum solo brings on Randy, building majestically. Without a doubt, the Swing 7 puts its own stomp on this famous piece.

I can think of only one other jazz recording of Lehar's Yours Is My Heart Alone, reborn in this straightforward treatment, which evokes a sleek sports car leisurely eating up the miles. Each of the soloists creates a polished, fervent jazz aphorism in only a few seconds. Catch the nimble counterpoint of the last chorus, too.

Jelly Roll Morton's Sweet Substitute, splendidly yearning, should be part of every band's repertoire. Dan sings plaintively; Randy embellishes the theme stylishly, before giving way to the leader's delicate meditations and a dancing group improvisation with spaces for Frank. And savor Joe's deep-toned cymbals throughout the date. When I mentioned this, he grinned and said proudly, "They're my babies!" He's earned the right to such parental pride. And the closing chorus sounds like a famous solo transcribed for ensemble, but it's a Varro original.

Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise was another unusual melody brought into the jazz canon in the Forties, by players looking for songs with intriguing structures and harmonies. Of this and the other two operetta-based compositions, Johnny noted, "These are songs that weren't played for a long time. They weren't considered standards, but they're beautiful."

Ring Dem Bells, an Ellington rouser that celebrates Sonny Greer's rocking mastery (visible in the 1930 film Check and Double Check) came to the Swing 7 through the celebrated 1937 Lionel Hampton Victor 78 "with Jess Stacy on piano," Johnny points out. Frank and Joe, early on in the piece, suggest their own version of Big Noise From Winnetka, giving way to the striding Mr. Varro. What follows is a small marvel of jazz architecture, something Johnny used to do with Phil Napoleon – "the first guy that starts playing stays in to the end of the song, he doesn't take a rest. It really builds it up." The shouting ensembles that follow (quoting Dixie, no less) are special indeed. Although it has a long history, Friml's Only A Rose has never been properly explored in jazz until now. Johnny first heard it on an Al Cohn record and was taken by it. "I started playing it myself, either as a solo or with a trio, and I started thinking that it would sound good as a Swing 7 number," he says. Scott offers some Southwestern hollers, followed by compact hot solos and that piano-bass duet, a remarkable interlude.

Ellington's Come Sunday was originally a Johnny Hodges aria, although I heard Lee Wiley sing it memorably at her last concert in 1972. Randy outlines this jazz hymn with reverence and lightness, perhaps because this tempo has more of a danceable pulse than is usual. Johnny notes, "I thought I'd give it a Baroque sound, a fugue of two melodies against each other."

Suddenly It's Spring, a pretty Jimmy Van Heusen melody, opens with a meteorological joke: hints of autumn in Lullaby of the Leaves. Every pianist could learn from Johnny's tidy, solid comping, and the solos are, as Ruby Braff would say, delicious.

Johnny wasn't around in 1917, when Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble was written, but he knows how to bring out the best in a variety of songs. Pianist Rossano Sportiello, enjoying a jazzman's holiday at these sessions, stood behind Johnny at the keyboard during the run-through, and raved to everyone about Varro's "beautiful touch, his beautiful sound." The arrangement evokes Bob Crosby's Bobcats, then a clipped West Coast-inspired ensemble before Scott's outing. Everyone gets space to improvise, except for the written ensemble chorus in the middle. And there's a surprising key change before the rousing conclusion.

In its structure and harmonies, Nacio Herb Brown's You Stepped Out of A Dream is nothing like the usual pop fare of 1941. After a neat rhythm section chorus, the ensemble offers a brilliant version of the melodic line, with witty glances at Strayhorn's A Train in the second half. After a glistening solo by Randy, Dan offers an amusing modern variation on tailgate traditions.

In the first three Swing 7 CDs, Johnny celebrated the John Kirby Sextet's jazz versions of "the classics." This version of Chopin's Minute Waltz, based on the arrangement by Charlie Shavers, is itself memorable. The band sounds rich and resonant because of Johnny's scoring. Each of the horns gets a full chorus at top speed: during the run-through, Dan asked, "Could we have that tempo di possible?" An especially memorable moment comes at the end of Randy's solo – Charlie Chaplin making a running turn, recreated for trumpet. In the studio, Mat Domber pointed out how much Scott's solo reminded him of fabled Chicago altoist Boyce Brown. Writing these notes, I kept returning to this track – one hilarious virtuoso turn after another.

If Bing Crosby had never existed, the universe would have been a darker place, also true for the songs he popularized. One, Two, Button Your Shoe is a cheerful exhortation by someone waiting impatiently for the Beloved. Johnny didn't remember where he had heard it first, but said, "That's been in my repertoire for a long time. When I started to think of this session, I was looking for songs that not a lot of people do. It's a swinging song by itself: it's got a great happiness to it." The solos are joyously emphatic, and the little Thirties twirl at the end of the arrangement is a particular treat.

Although no one planned it this way, the CD ends with a pair of songs associated with the brilliant short-lived jazz trumpeters Buddy Bolden and Sonny Berman. Buddy Bolden's Blues (or I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say) is credited to Jelly Roll Morton, who recorded a mournful late version. Johnny's version dreams of lost Storyville splendor while echoing the Fifties Basie band. Dan told me, for posterity, that he began his solo with Claude Jones's improvisation in mind: "I love all those records."

Sonny Speaks, credited to Berman and clarinetist John LaPorta, has a descending bass line reminiscent of Lover, although it moves through its chord changes briskly. Ever the wry philosopher, Scott quotes Sonny Boy in mid-solo. Johnny says, "I did a memorial service for John LaPorta and conducted the band. This was originally a chart for sixteen pieces. It's a good closer."

There is truth in advertising, for the Swing 7 honestly lives up to its name.

— Michael Steinman, March 2008 (On his widely-read blog, jazzlives.wordpress.com, Michael Steinman writes vividly about unforgettable jam sessions and concerts, treasured recordings, and remarkable players. His essays, interviews, and reviews are also featured in Cadence, All About Jazz, Jazz Improv, and The Mississippi Rag. He is currently writing a book about his jazz heroes.)

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