The Johnny Varro Quartet with Jon-Erik Kellso: All That Jazz
- Johnny Varro: Piano
- Jon-Erik Kellso: Pujé
- Nicki Parrott: Bass
- Joe Ascione: Drums
W. 57th St., NY
21-24 Aug 2000
Arbors ARCD 19243
"Varro resuscitates the jam combo tradition of the ´30s and ´40s and here fronts what could have been, in 1945, a major attraction on the 52nd Street jam scene. All of the ingredients are present. One of a small handful of contemporary trumpeters who posesses a close affinity to the giants of the pre-bop era, Jon-Erik Kellso was the perfect choice for this session. With a style chiseled from the Louis Armstrong of the 1920´s and ´30s, Kellso sought even further to find other related sources of inspiration. On the performances heard here, with his readily identifiable, burry tone and characteristic mastery of lyrical, thematically based improvisations, Kellso effortlessly, and perhaps even unconsciously, incorporates fleeting allusions to many of his predecessors." - Jack Sohmer, record and book reviewer for such publications as The Mississippi Rag, Down Beat, JazzTimes and Cadence.
- The Lady´s in Love with You
- The Touch of Your Lips
- Mama´s Gone, Goodbye
- Stars Fell on Alabama
- Swinging Down to New Orleans
- A Porter´s Love Song to a Chambermaid
- Was I to Blame for Falling in Love with You?
- Be Careful, It´s My Heart
- A Monday Date
- Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise
- Mandy, Make Up Your Mind
- Darn That Dream
- On a Slow Boat to China
- How Deep Is the Ocean?
- When Day Is Done
Notes by Jack Sohmer
With remarkably good sense for one so young, Johnny Varro entered the world at just the right time to benefit, 15 years later, from the jazz scene of the mid-1940s. Had he been born even five years earlier, he would no doubt have found his only working opportunities as a pianist in somebody else's big band, with luck a swinging one, but, more than likely, one of the hundreds of pedestrian organizations that existed only to satisfy the demands of the masses. But, as fortune had it, even when a teenager, he was drawn to the call of swinging, improvised jazz, and in that service he has remained ever since.
To play popular music in the 1930s was largely to perform an act of obeisance at the
feet of a dance-hungry public, a generation raised during the anxieties of the Great Depression, but one still nostalgic for the carefree pleasures of the Roaring Twenties. What better remedy for a blues born of precarious economic times could there have been than the thrill of dancing to the music of glamorous big name bands? But so much for the needs of the public. What concerns us are the aesthetic needs of the most musicially creative of the artists in those bands, the jazzmen who nightly coursed the continent in search of a living wage, but who only came to life when playing for themselves.
Born at a private jam session in Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo's home in 1935, the Benny Goodman Trio soon became an integral part of the leader's busy schedule of theater and hotel engagements, cross country one-nighters, and recording sessions. Although there had been earlier instances of bands-within-bands going back to the '20s, the Goodman Trio and, later, Quartet set the stage for the small jazz combos that began to thrive in the immediate postwar years. Ironically, this happy activity took place during the same period that a complex network of economic and musical factors were working to force dozens of top-ranking leaders, including Goodman, to disband their orchestras. Beginning in 1942, and coupled with wartime restrictions on gasoline and shellac (essentials to traveling and recording bands), was a self-defeating union ban on all orchestral recording and a consequent shift in public taste to featured vocalists. To these crippling factors may be added as well a growing stylistic divisiveness within the jazz audience itself.
Although big band swing had been a dominant force in popular music for over 20 years, by the war's end increasing numbers of jazz fans were becoming attracted to the small, impromptu groups which featured improvised solos, not so much as added elements in otherwise predetermined orchestrations, but as the very raison d'etre for performance. By 1945, not only were the best of the Swing Era's jazz soloists, such as Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Art Tatum, and Teddy Wilson, working as leaders of their own highly charged combos, but attention was also being directed towards jazzmen playing in both older and newer styles. Thus, on a typical night in New York during that year, one could hear not only Hawkins, Tatum, and Billie Holiday, but also traditional New Orleans jazz as played by the legendary Bunk Johnson and Sidney Bechet, Chicago-style jam sessions featuring the likes of Wild Bill Davison, Muggsy Spanier, George Brunies, and Pee Wee Russell, and the breathtaking "new jazz" of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell. Combined with the brilliant, swinging sounds of Goodman's then current Sextet and Woody Herman's exciting First Herd with Flip Phillips, these were inspiring times indeed for young jazz musicians with open ears.
Johnny Varro was one of many such fledgling jazzmen in New York eagerly seeking out the miraculous diversity of sounds then being played at Nick's and Eddie Condon's in Greenwich Village and in the tiny clubs clustered on 52nd Street between 5th and 7th Avenues. A student and disciple of Teddy Wilson and an enthusiastic sitter-in at public jam sessions, such as those held weekly at downtown's Central Plaza, Varro quickly began attracting the attention of scores of veteran jazzmen. During subsequent
decades as a widely employed sideman in traditionally oriented jazz bands and leader of his own trio, he has long justified the faith initially placed in him by Wilson.
On this recording, Varro resuscitates the jam combo tradition of the '30s and '40s in that, eschewing the carefully charted courses of the four-horn ensembles he has previously led on Arbors Jazz releases (the several records by The Johnny Varro Swing Seven, ARCD 19138, 19198, 19242), here he fronts what could have been, in 1945, a major attraction on the 52nd Street jam scene. All of the ingredients are present. One of a small handful of contemporary trumpeters who possesses a close affinity to the giants of the pre-bop era, Jon-Erik Kellso was the perfect choice for this session. With a style chiseled from the Louis Armstrong of the 1920's and '30s, Kellso sought even further to find other related sources of inspiration. On the performances heard here, with his readily identifiable, burry tone and characteristic mastery of lyrical, thematically based improvisations, Kellso effortlessly, and perhaps even unconsciously, incorporates fleeting allusions to many of his predecessors. Though admittedly only a subjective reaction, this listener observed in Kellso's playing passing references to such noted trumpeters as Roy Eldridge, Red Allen, Rex Stewart, Jonah Jones, Wild Bill Davison, Bobby Hackett, Joe Thomas, and Ruby Braff This is not meant to imply a deliberate lining of other musicians' trademark phrases or methodologies, but only that Kellso has the remarkable ability to summon up many subtly different approaches to enhance his own style.
Duties among the bandsmen are delegated fairly, with the lion's share of solos going to Kellso and Varro, but bassist Nicki Parrott and drummer Joe Ascione, who shines on brushes and highhats throughout, also receive their moments in the sun. Most of the tunes are familiar standards played in a conventional range of tempos, from the slow Darn That Dream to the way-up A Monday Date, but there are also a few other numbers that may require a word or two. Taken at a medium bright tempo, The Lady's In Love With You finds Kellso just as hot in his own way as the formidable Muggsy Spanier, who recorded this long overlooked pop tune for the Commodore label in 1944; Swinging Down To New Orleans is an attractive post-Dixie type of melody from the prolific pen of Dick Cary; Was I To Blame For Failing In Love With You?, one of many forgotten tunes of quality written in the '30s, was the Casa Loma band's theme song before it adopted Smoke Rings; and Be Careful, It's My Heart is the only track upon which Kellso does not play. It should be pointed out additionally that Varro occasionally departs from his customary Wilsonian approach to also pay tribute to another, less celebrated favorite, Billy Kyle, he of the John Kirby Sextet and the Armstrong All Stars. Careful listeners might spot as well the singular references to Earl Hines, Count Basic, Joe Bushkin, and Mel Powell. But too much should not be made of this. Like Kellso, Varro is very much his own man.
True, Johnny Varro was born at a good time. But it takes a lot more than luck to play as well as he has played all of these years. Many prodigies have come and gone over the years, some through physical self-abuse, some through diminishing musical conviction or power, and others through sheer stupidity. But Varro has remained on course throughout his 50-year career. He still stands as tall as ever.
— Jack Sohmer, January, 2001
(After some 20 years as a clarinetist and tenorman in a variety of combos and big bands, Jack Sohmer turned to college-level teaching. In the mid-1970s he began writing a weekly jazz column for The Miami Herald which soon led to a second career as record and book reviewer for a number of jazz periodicals including Coda, Cadence, Down Beat, JazzTimes, Radio Free Jazz and The Mississippi Rag as well as a writer of liner notes for numerous LPs and CDs. He has also contributed articles on some 40 early jazzmen to American National Biography (Oxford University Press).