Johnny Varro Swing 7: Swingin´ On West 57th St.
- Johnny Varro: Piano, Leader, Arrangements
- Randy Sandke: Trumpet
- Dan Barrett: Trombone
- Ken Peplowski: Clarinet, Alto Sax
- Scott Robinson: Tenor Sax
- Michael Moore: Bass
- Joe Ascione: Drums
West 57th St., NY
22-23 Aug 2000
Arbors ARCD 19242
"The Johnny Varro Swing Seven has set standards of imaginative repertoire and musical prowess which are high, indeed. The listener new to this band will treasure the eclectic tune list (including composers from Frederic Chopin to Johnny Hodges) as well as the freshness and verve of the players. Those who are already fans of this septet will be thrilled anew as the musical surprises unfold, and will join this writer in replaying this album and savoring each moment."
— Duncan Schiedt, a veteran jazz photographer, archivist and author since 1939.
- As Long As I Live
- On the Sunnyside of the Street
- Old Fashioned Love
- Mission to Moscow
- Black Butterfly
- You Need to Rock
- Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairies
- It´s Been So Long
- Doin´ the New Low-Down
- Hag´s Blues
- I´m Shooting High
Notes by Duncan Schiedt
Time was when people of my generation could enter a music store and sample the latest jazz record in an enclosed listening booth. The idea was to be sure you really wanted it before you put down your money. If you were there intending not to buy, but merely to be listening to the latest good stuff, the store owner's patience, wearing thin, could abruptly put an end to it. But hope would sometimes prevail, and he would wait, trusting that you might eventually be tempted to buy.
This mercantile minuet between seller and possible free-loader has gone the way of the 8-track cassette. The compact disc, pristine in its plastic packaging, remains a mysterious unknown until the moment of truth when digital sound bursts forth from the speakers.
How does the potential buyer of today know if he or she will want this music? One reliable measure has always been consistent performance. Because reviews in the jazz press may be months behind a CD's actual release date, this consistency of performance is sometimes the critical measure.
In the case of the Johnny Varro Swing Seven, consistency is assured. The previous Arbors releases Swing Seven (ARCD 19138) and Afterglow (ARCD 19198) have set standards of imaginative repertoire and musical prowess which are high, indeed. The Swing Seven's Afterglow was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque de Jazz by Le Hot Club de France Federation for 1999. The listener new to this band will treasure the eclectic tune list (including composers from Frederic Chopin to Johnny Hodges) as well as the freshness and verve of the players. Those who are already fans of this septet will be thrilled anew as the musical surprises unfold, and will join this writer in replaying this album and savoring each moment.
Now and then, in a sometimes chaotic jazz scene distorted by short-lived fads and alien intrusions, an inspired group of players, working with a gifted leader, creates a hody of work that will live. This band has done that.
The opener, As Long As I Live, one of the Koehler-Arlen masterpieces turned out for various Cotton Club Reviews (this was in the 1934 edition), is a musician's favorite, and was a staple in the repertoire of Maxine Sullivan, for one. This is an original Varro chart, and possesses nice dynamics - piano vs. band - and excellent use of breaks. Listen for: Dan Barrett playing all around the tune, implying, but not actually stating it. Does it make vou think of Vic Dickenson?
Caught, a most untypical Fats Waller piano composition, appeared in a Mayfair Music Co. folio, and on a scarce Joe Sullivan solo tribute to the immortal Fats. In a minor mood, the Varro band chart takes off in fine style, and split choruses, with the leader's scintillating full chorus leading into a smooth key change and a Michael Moore go-round climax with tasty drums. Listen for: the instrumental contrast during the Sandke solo.
A Hodges-like Peplowski solo comprises the initial chorus of this Varro chart. On the Sunnyside of the Street invites you and your partner to roll up the rug and engage. Ken artfully decorates the ending, too.
Old Fashioned Love may be a chestnut, but this Kirby-type chart infuses it with the old verve And respect it deseves. James P. Johnson wrote it for the 1923 revue Runnin' Wild where it was performed by Adelaide Hall and others. Listen for: Dan Barrett's sly entry on the heels of Scott Robinson's tenor passage. Also the "sounds of silence" in the final chorus, a welcome relief from the agitation of the Kirby sound.
Johnny Varro based this chart of Mission to Moscow on an Al Cohn version. This classic of the 1942 Benny Goodman band was written by Mel Powell, and Johnny is equal to the occasion, rippling through the solo passages with aplomb. Listen for: the rock-steady rhythm of Moore and Ascione, lifting the excellence of each soloist.
Black Butterfly, another track that makes you want to dance, is one of those Ellington 32-bar ballads that deserves every revival it can get. One memorable prior recording by Wild Bill Davison (Pretty Wild - reissued by Arbors on ARCD 19175) can tear your heart out. Duke himself recorded it in 1936, and with Cootie Williams four years later. Listen for: Randy's sensitive, sober reading early on, and the appropriate "flutter" of wings further on. Scott has an equally poignant say. Oh, well, it's obvious everyone enjoyed this tune.
You Need To Rock, a blues/riff composition which Johnny picked up from an LP featuring the Duke and Johnny Hodges, is begun by Joe Ascione, setting the tempo for the unison passage which follows. The tune could just as appropriately be named You Need To Swing, and swing it does. Everyone gets a triple chorus, and Ken's clarinet rides over the exit choruses. Listen for: Randy's and Ken's variations on the theme.
In adapting a John Kirby performance to his own group, Johnny adds trombone to the mix, and here has re-ordered the solos of the Kirby original. Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairies, an unlikely jazz title if there ever was one, would have even old Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky tapping his foot, I'll bet.
Veteran listeners will seldom hear It's Been So Long without fond memories of the
cherished Benny Goodman vocalist, Helen Ward, whose record of this tune put it on the map. The arrangement picks up a Mel Powell riff after the soloists have had their licks, with Johnny taking the breaks. Listen for: A sweet, wide-ranging tenor chorus by Scott, and the neat way that Dan recoils from a musical trap toward the end of his solo.
Avalon, uncompromisingly fast, challenges everyone. Nobody seems to mind, least of all Michael Moore, whose fingers fly.
Burke and Van Heusen wrote Constantly in 1942, and the pleasant song has been underperformed ever since. Joe's drums make strong and tasty contributions here.
Jess Stacy wrote Complainin' in the late 1930s, the Bob Crosby band recorded it in November 1939, but it was the appealing solo by the composer in January of that year that tempted Johnny Varro to create this moody arrangement built around the Stacy style, hallmarks of which are all over this performance.
Doin' The New Low-Down was part of the score of Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928, a monumental Broadwav revue with an all-black cast. Dancer Bill Robinson made it his own on stage, and on record, backed by the Don Redman Orchestra. It is not one of the easiest tunes to arrange or play, demanding an almost strait-jacket adherence to its changes, thus it has not been a favorite for jamming. However, its harmonies are attractive, and here the players nobly cut through the strictures and swing madly. Listen for: the fine arranging hand of leader Johnny Varro.
Revisiting the John Kirby oeuvre, we encounter Chopin, and the popular Polonaise. Adapting the Charlie Shavers arrangement to seven pieces, Varro allows his soloists full rein while preserving the essence of the early-1940s original. The shades of Messrs. Shavers, Bailey, Kyle, Procope, Kirby and Spencer live on!
About the time Johnny was putting the finishing touches on this blues arrangement, word came that the beloved bassist and composer, Bob Haggart, had suddenly passed away. It seemed fitting to dedicate the tune to the memory of this great artist and friend. And so we have Hag's Blues.
One of the bright spots on the Hollywood scene in 1935 was, the film King of Burlesque, starring Warner Baxter, Alice Faye, Jack Oakie and, in a small but captivating supporting role, Fats Waller. An important tune, by Ted Koehler and Jimmy McHugh, was I'm Shooting High, sung by virtually all the cast members (except Waller) around a piano. The lyrics were optimistic, in common with many other songs of the Depression era. This chart of the bright melody relies on the band to fulfill the mood. It is a fitting farewell tune for this splendid collection. Enjoy!
— Duncan Schiedt, December, 2000
(Duncan Schiedt is a veteran writer and a photographer of jazz since 1939. He is the author of the first biography of Fats Waller, Ain't Misbehavin' (in collaboration with W.T. Kirkeby), The Jazz State of Indiana, and most recentlv, Twelve Lives in Jazz. He activelv follows the jazz scene with his camera; mounts museum exhibitions of his work; and manages a huge collection of historic jazz images. An enthusiastic amateur pianist and child of the swing era, he brings an appreciative ear to the music and the musicians.)