The Johnny Varro Trio: Pure Imagination
- Johnny Varro: Piano
- Mark Neuenschwander : Bass
- Ed Metz Jr.: Drums
22-23 Jan 2004
Arbors ARCD 19293
“On the evidence of the music on Pure Imagination and his notable series of Arbors recordings, Johnny Varro is still very much in his musical prime, ranking at the top of swing pianists and consistently succeeding at keeping the vintage music he loves alive and infectious.” Scott Yanow, noted jazz critic and author of 8 books on jazz.
- A Beautiful Friendship
- Pure Imagination
- I’m Old Fashioned
- Dream Dancing
- Love Walked In
- ‘Deed I Do
- Drop Me Off in Harlem
- Nobody Else But You
- I’ll Take Romance
- This Masquerade
- Beautiful Love
- Two For the Road
- Someone Lovelier Than You
- A Lovely Way To Spend an Evening
Notes by Scott Yanow
In some simplified history of jazz books, New Orleans jazz of the 1920s begat swing in the 1930s which begat bebop the following decade which in turn begat cool jazz, hard bop, the avant-garde and fusion. With all of the begetting, jazz is seen as a rush towards complete freedom, with classic styles being born, maturing and going out of date in less than a decade. It makes for an interesting time line but it is completely inaccurate.
While jazz musicians are constantly searching for new ways to express themselves and new approaches are consistently being born, it does not "replace" more vintage styles or make them obsolete. The big band era may have ended in 1946 due to economic factors and several other reasons, but swing did not cease to exist, even as bop and its successors moved the mainstream of jazz ahead. In fact, every jazz style still exists and is played by talented musicians today.
In Johnny Varro's piano playing, one can hear the influences of the pianists who made such a strong impression on him as a teenager: Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacy, Mel Powell, Billy Kyle, Nat Cole, Joe Sullivan, Art Tatum and Farl Hines. One also hears Varro's own musical personality. "Although I like bebop," says Varro, "and played with bop musicians at times, I just felt more comfortable in the mainstream genre." The result is not a recreation of the past or an exercise in nostalgia but fresh creative music played by a vital jazz musician within the world of swing.
Born in Brooklyn, Johnny grew up around jazz. His father loved the music and his mother played piano around the house, giving Johnny his first piano lessons at age ten before he began studying classical music. "I started on piano when I was ten since we owned one. I studied classical music. One day my father brought home my first Commodore record, a trio performance with Bud Freeman, Jess Stacy and George Wettling. I also heard Benny Goodman with Teddy Wilson at that time. Hearing Teddy Wilson was a revelation for me and it changed the way I thought about music. He played so light and swinging. It made me want to play jazz. Luckily I had an open-minded teacher who, although she did not teach me anything about jazz, did not mind the fact that I played it. She could see that I really had a passion for the music."
That passion was further fueled by Varro's father taking the youth to clubs and dance halls to see the giants of the day. As a teenager his piano playing had developed to the point where he was invited to sit in on a regular basis at the Stuyvesant Casino's weekly jam sessions, playing with the likes of Max Kaminsky, Tony Parenti, Gene Sedric and Herman Autrey.
After serving in the military for two years (1951-53) where he was a radioman with the Signal Corps during the Korean War, Varro was discharged and soon joined Bobby Hackett's quartet for a tour of the Midwest. "Bobby was so patient with me, teaching me songs including some that I thought I knew. He was a wonderful person." The association with Hackett helped Varro to break into the New York traditional jazz scene and he became a fixture in such clubs as Nick's the Metropole, the Embers, the Roundtable and Jimmy Ryan's.
"I'd been playing around town and Eddie Condon called me one day in 1957, asking me to meet him at his saloon, London's. He told me that Ralph Sutton who had been his intermission pianist had left and that he had tried out several pianists but none were right for the situation. He asked me if I wanted the job and of course I said yes. I began immediately playing intermissions in a duet with Buzzy Drootin on drums; no bass. After a few months, I was working with the house band at London's. It gave me the opportunity to play with some of the true giants of the music, the real heavyweights. I also loved the lifestyle although I did eventually drink too much and had to give up drinking altogether." During this fertile period, Varro shared the bandstand (at London's and elsewhere) with such greats as Buck Clayton, Pee Wee Russell, Yank Lawson, Lou McGarity, Peanuts Hucko, George Wettling, Henry "Red" Allen, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Shavers, Roy Eldridge and Jo Jones among others.
That golden era continued for a few years until things began to change. "By 1964, the bottom had dropped out of the music business, at least for the type of music that I played. The Metropole was using go-go dancers and I was not working that much. I remember that it was really cold during the winter of 1965 and I got a call from Phil Napoleon saying that it was 78 degrees in Miami. He told me that he was working six nights a week and played the warm-ups for the Jackie Gleason show, and he wanted to know if I would join his band. I moved to Miami, played with Phil for quite a few years and eventually had my own job in a hotel with my trio." Varro also toured with the Dukes of Dixieland for a year and had opportunities to play in Florida with Flip Phillips and Billy Butterfield.
After 14 years in Miami, the same basic thing happened. The tourist trade had died off as many of the older residents moved into condominiums and had their own entertainment. Since the hotel business was dying, in 1979 I moved to Los Angeles. At the time there were many clubs to play at in L.A. including Donte's, Alphonse's, Pasquale's. the Money Tree and others. I also worked as a solo pianist at Gatsby's for a long time." During his Los Angeles period, Varro became quite active in the classic jazz festival circuit, playing at major events, on cruises and at jazz parties in addition to going on tours with all-star groups.
"Strangely enough, I also spent 14 years in Los Angeles before that situation started to die and most of the clubs I was associated with closed. In 1993 I moved to Tampa Bay, Florida. Presently I play at jazz parties, festivals and occasional cruises in addition to going to Europe and Japan."
Prior to his Arbors debut in 1992, Johnny Varro had recorded for the tiny Too Cool label with soprano-saxophonist Don Nelson, did three albums for Hallmark Records, and, dating back to New York, several sides for Command Records. He also played on a few dates with Peanuts Hucko, Eddie Miller, Betty O'Hara and Phil Napolean. "In 1992 when I was still in Los Angeles, Mat Domber asked if I'd like to record in Newport Beach. During this period I was recording very little. That changed with Arbors; I enjoy working with Mat Domber. He lets me pick the men I want and the material, telling me that it's my baby." Varro has since appeared on quite a few Arbors releases including those led by John Allred, Ruby Braff, Jackie Coon, Dottie Dodgion, Eddie Erickson, Rick Fay, Bobby Gordon, George Masso, Ed Metz Jr., Tommy Saunders, Ralph Sutton, Allan Vache, Bob Wilber and the Magnificent Seven.
In addition, Varro has led ten CDs of his own, including Pure Imagination. "I've been featured solo, with trios and quartets and on three CDs with my Swing Seven band for which I write the arrangements."
For Pure Imagination, the pianist chose to work with bassist Mark Neuenschwander and drummer Ed Metz Jr. "I've known both players for a while and they give me what I want, and together we form a rhythm section that would be perfect with a couple of horns yet works well as an independent group."
"They always swing and are very supportive of my playing. For this recording, I wanted to mostly perform songs that are not played that often, i.e. nice tunes that are often overlooked. I spent some time thinking of which songs would be best for us to play although the recording itself came together pretty smoothly."
The opener, A Beautiful Friendship, is almost always performed by a vocalist. The Varro-Neuenschwander-Metz Trio shows that the song holds up by itself without the addition of lyrics. The bassist gets a chance to take a solo chorus before Varro and Metz trade fours tastefully.
Pure Imagination, which was used in the movie Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, might be an unusual choice for a swinging trio to perform, but it works quite well. "Lou Rawls I believe had a hit with this song. Back in the 1970s, I was playing a few more contemporary tunes and I've always enjoyed playing this as a bossa-nova." Metz also adds a New Orleans parade rhythm feel to the rendition.
A more conventional but no less delightful choice for this project is I'm Old Fashioned. Varro keeps the melody in mind all the way through, singing the Jerome Kern theme through his piano to the point that one can almost hear Johnny Mercer's words.
"I performed Dream Dancing in Europe at a Cole Porter festival. It's a bit different than the usual 32-bar tune and includes some unexpected sections." Instead of being 32 bars with an 8-bar bridge, Porter gave each chorus 52 bars (including a four-bar extension) while keeping the bridge at 8 bars. Cole Porter was famous for writing in extended and unusual forms."
Love Walked In finds Varro sounding so relaxed even as the tempo moves along. There were no bass/drums tradeoffs on record during the 1930s, so this performance shows how swing can be modernized without being altered or watered-down.
'Deed I Do is closely associated with Billie Holiday and later swing and Dixieland bands, so it is surprising to note that it was actually composed in 1926, making it the oldest piece heard during the trio recital. Varro and his group take it uptempo, giving the pianist a few opportunities to stride a bit.
Drop Me Off In Harlem is a pure joy, with Varro, hinting at Duke Ellington and Fats Waller in his striding. "I always liked the way that Nobody Else But Me changes keys after the first eight bars" says Varro. After cooking on the latter tune, Varro takes a surprising unaccompanied chorus that adds momentum to the performance.
The beautiful Johnny Mandel piece Emily is played as a duo without drums. While Emily is performed fairly often by jazz musicians of several styles, I'll Take Romance has become increasingly obscure through the years, but certainly not due to its quality. Varro builds his solo off of the melody while swinging away, showing that I'll Take Romance is a song well worth reviving.
This Masquerade was composed by Leon Russell in 1976 and became a major hit for guitarist-singer George Benson. This treatment as a bossa nova by Varro shows that, to paraphrase a swing standard, "Tain't What You Play But The Way That You Play It."
This version of Victor Young's Beautiful Love, which is often interpreted as a ballad, has what Whitney Balliett called "the sound of surprise." After the trio cooks for a bit and Neuenschwander takes a short solo, there is a piano/drums tradeoff and then the bassist drops out. While Metz emulates Gene Krupa, Varro plays a solo that is reminiscent of Jess Stacy's improvisation on Sing, Sing, Sing at the famous Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.
The remainder of the enjoyable set is comprised of Henry Mancini's lovely melody Two For The Road, the forgotten but worthy Dietz-Schwartz song If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You and the surprisingly uptempo closer, A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening.
On the evidence of the music on Pure Imagination and his notable series of Arbors recordings, Varro is still very much in his musical prime, ranking at the top of swing pianists and consistently succeeding at keeping the vintage music he loves alive and infectious.
– Scott Yanow, July, 2004
(Scott Yanow, who has penned over 300 liner notes, is the author of eight jazz books including Trumpet Kings, Swing, Classic Jazz and the upcoming Jazz On Film.)