Johnny Varro Featuring Ken Peplowski: Two legends of Jazz
- Johnny Varro: Piano
- Ken Peplowski: Clarinet
- Frank Tate: Bass
- Joe Ascione: Drums
W. 57th St., NY
8-9 Nov 2007
Arbors ARCD 19363
“Johnny Varro has been such a consistent pianist ever since his career began in earnest when he joined Bobby Hackett’s band in 1953 that it is easy to take him for granted. As with one of his influences, Teddy Wilson, Varro gives one the impression that he never played a wrong note, a tasteless phrase or a hesitant chorus. Johnny Varro is very happy with the music that resulted from this project and listeners will have no problem enjoying each of the 15 performances, whether it is solo, duet, trio or quartet. Johnny Varro, as usual, excels in every format.”
– Scott Yanow, May 2008
(Scott Yanow, has penned over 500 liner notes and is the author of nine jazz books including Trumpet Kings, Swing, Classic Jazz, Jazz On Film, and Jazz On Record 1917-76)
- My Baby Just Cares For Me
- The Touch of Your Lips
- Menina Flor
- After I Say I´m Sorry (What Can I Say?)
- It´s Easy to Remember
- A Smo o oth One
- You´re a Sweetheart
- Secret Love
- Out of Nowhere
- Love Locked Out
- I Love You
- Someday You´ll Be Sorry
- Blues on 57th Street
- The Way You Look Tonight
Notes by Scott Yanow
Johnny Varro, has been such a consistent pianist ever since his career began in earnest when he joined Bobby Hackett's band in 1953 that it is easy to take him for granted. As with one of his influences, Teddy Wilson, Varro gives one the impression that he never played a wrong note, a tasteless phrase or a hesitant chorus. Unlike some of the more flamboyant characters who played jazz in the past, Varro is reliable and dependable, and he has not had an erratic lifestyle or a career full of rapid declines and surprise comebacks.
That is not to say that Varro's playing lacks excitement, adventure or surprises. Quite the contrary. It means that he can be relied upon to provide those qualities whenever he plays.
Johnny Varro was born in Brooklyn in 1930. Jazz was part of his upbringing since his father loved it, his mother played piano around the house, and she gave him his first piano lessons when he was ten. While he initially studied classical music, Varro's life changed when he was 15 and heard a Benny Goodman trio record with Teddy Wilson. He also enjoyed dixieland and the Chicago-style jazz of Eddie Condon, an interest that received positive reinforcement when his father took him to clubs to see the swing and trad giants. Within a few years, Varro was a strong enough player to
sit in on a regular basis at the Stuyvesant Casino's weekly jam sessions Which often included some of the musicians associated with the Condon mob.
After being in the military for two years (1951-53), working during the Korean War as a radioman with the Signal Corps, he was discharged and became the pianist with Bobby Hackett's quartet. "When I joined Bobby, I had a heavy stride style. One time he said to me, 'You sound good, but we have a bass player.' I learned that I didn't have to play stride; the bottom note wasn't needed. So I listened closely to Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, Billy Kyle and some of the swing players. I did play with Eddie Condon later on, both as a solo pianist and going on the road with him, but I didn't want to get bogged down with only playing dixieland. It wasn't as versatile as swing. I heard bebop but I was so involved in swing that I really loved it and stuck with that, wanting to perfect my style. I can adapt to playing with bop players but my true love is swing."
Playing with Bobby Hackett was Varro's ticket to break into the swing and traditional jazz scenes in New York. He worked with Phil Napoleon at Nick's, succeeded Ralph Sutton as the intermission pianist at Condon's (soon joining Condon's house band) and remembers fondly the Metropole, the Embers and the Roundtable. He played on bandstands with the likes of Wild Bill Davison, Buck Clayton, Henry "Red" Allen, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Yank Lawson, Jonah Jones, Cutty Cutshall, Lou McGarity, Pee Wee Russell, Peanuts Hucko, Edmond Hall, Coleman Hawkins, George Wettling, Jo Jones and other magical names on a nightly basis.
But by 1965, the era was ending. "Many of the clubs were closing in New York and business was bad. I got a call from Phil Napoleon telling me that he was playing six nights a week in Miami and that he was also doing the Jackie Gleason show. He asked what I was doing. I lied and said that I was busy, but I asked for a plane ticket. It was snowing in New York in January but when I got to Miami Beach it was 78 degrees. I stayed there for 14 years and worked constantly, both with Phil and with my own trio at hotels."
In 1979, Johnny Varro realized that business had declined in Miami for swinging jazz, so he moved to Los Angeles. "I played at all of L.A.'s jazz clubs like Pasquale's, Donte's and Alfonso's, a whole slew of Italian restaurants that became jazz clubs. I had a five-year gig playing solo at Gatsby's in Brentwood. That was a great job, playing for movie stars who would drop by."
In 1992, Varro, began his longtime association with Arbors Records. Also during this era, Varro first formed his Swing Seven, a group that gave him an opportunity to write arrangements; they recently recorded their fourth album for Arbors. But after coincidentally 14 years passed, all of his favorite clubs had closed and Varro moved again, settling in Tampa Bay, Florida. Although he does not work much locally, life is good. Varro performs regularly at concerts, jazz parties, cruises and classic jazz festivals with a variety of all-stars. "I am enjoying myself playing with many great players. Any of the top dozen could have been one of the Condon bunch, very easily, especially Ken Peplowski."
"I feel like I've known Ken forever," continues Varro, "at least 20 years. We have always had fun playing together and we've worked in a variety of settings through the years. He reminds me a little bit of the late Kenny Davern on clarinet. Even though they play quite differently, you never know what to expect. They try unusual ideas and somehow do it all flawlessly."
While Johnny Varro is one of the key survivors of 1950s swing and classic jazz, Ken Peplowski belongs to the generation that revived and revitalized small group swing in the 1980s. Born on May 23, 1959 in Garfield Heights, Ohio, he worked locally in Cleveland as a teenager, mastering the clarinet, tenor and alto. Peplowski gained important experience while touring with the Tommy Dorsey ghost orchestra (under the direction of Buddy Morrow) during 1978-80. At the time, tenor-saxophonist Scott Hamilton and cornetist Warren Vaché were the key youngsters who were leading the small group swing movement. They were among the first world class jazz musicians in their twenties since Varro's generation to choose to play swing rather than later styles, such as fusion, post bop or r&b. Hamilton and Vaché were followed in 1983 with the arrival in New York of trombonist Dan Barrett and guitarist Howard Alden. Peplowski moved to New York around that time, working with Max Kaminsky, Jimmy McPartland and the Benny Goodman big band. When he started making recordings of his own for the Concord label in 1987, it was obvious that another young swing giant was on the scene.
In the two decades that have followed, Ken Peplowski has lived up to his great potential and has been consistently at the top of his field. He was a natural for a matchup with Johnny Varro. "I knew that I wanted to do something different," remembers the pianist. "The idea was to play duos, trios and quartets, with some of the trios being with drums but no bass, or bass but no drums. One plays a little bit different in each setting. The key was to get the right songs for each situation, and the right players. I feel very comfortable playing with Frank Tate. His rhythm is excellent, his bass solos are good and he lays back and leaves space. Joe Ascione is a phenomenal drummer and whenever I have a chance to use him, I do."
A bit unusual is that Ken Peplowski exclusively plays clarinet throughout this project, which was Varro's idea. "The songs were picked with that in mind. I always felt that his clarinet playing fit particularly well with my piano and it's easier to play trios with clarinet rather than tenor though he is a great tenor-saxophonist too. We talked briefly over how we would do each song, and that is about all of the planning that took place."
The program begins with the Depression-era tune My Baby Just Cares For Me. Gus Kahn's lyrics talk about how "my baby" does not care about material goods, but just "cares for me." This somewhat obscure song is taken by Varro, Peplowski and Ascione as a trio workout, with fine solos from the "two legends of jazz" and a
tradeoff that features Ascione's brushwork for a chorus.
Ray Noble's The Touch Of Your Lips is given a similar treatment by the trio. "Noble loved to change keys in the middle of each chorus which makes his songs fun to play." The beauty of Peplowski's tone along with a chorus in which Ascione's
drums are accompanied by Varro are among the highlights.
The full quartet has fun with Luiz Bonfa's Menina Flor, a delightful bossa nova that is rarely played but adapts itself very well to swing. Check out Peplowski's brilliant double-time runs during the second half of his solo and the interplay between the clarinetist and the pianist during the chorus before the brief bass solo. Ascione sits out on What Can I Say Dear After I Say I'm Sorry. Written in 1926 by Walter Donaldson, this song has appealed to Varro ever since he heard Benny Goodman's recording from the mid-1940s.
It's Easy To Remember, made famous by Bing Crosby in the mid-1930s, is taken as a lyrical clarinet-piano duet. "This is one of my favorite tunes, a great love song. Ken and I have done several duets in live performances and we always have a great blend together."
"A Smo-o-oth One, associated with Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian, is given a playful and often tongue-in-cheek treatment by the trio of Varro, Peplowski and Ascione. The drummer, incidentally, plays his part on this song just with his hands, including his solo.
Toots Thielemans' Bluesette had never been recorded by Varro before. "It is a tough song because it has four different parts to it. We sort of arranged the last chorus, talking it through beforehand." It might be a little difficult, but the quartet clearly had no difficulty romping through the multi-section work.
Johnny Varro has always been an exquisite solo pianist. He takes Jimmy McHugh's joyful You're A Sweetheart in his usual tasteful, swinging and melodic fashion. One can always hear the melody in Varro's improvisations and that is certainly true during the infectious performance of a song that deserves to be revived more often.
The full quartet swings hard on Secret Love. Listeners are often surprised to hear that Doris Day introduced this song, but she was often given superior tunes in hopes that she would make them into hits or at least standards. The more surprising aspect to Secret Love is that it was written as late as 1953. One could easily imagine swing era bands romping through the song 15 years earlier.
"At a jazz set when I'm on the bandstand, other musicians will invariably ask, 'What should we play?' When I suggest Out Of Nowhere rather than a song like Indiana, they are always happy because they don't get to play it that often. This is always a great song." The quartet takes Out Of Nowhere at a slightly faster pace than usual with each of the musicians getting their chance to shine.
Love Locked Out was brought in by Ken Peplowski for one of the duets. Johnny Varro, had never played this Ray Noble ballad before but it worked out so well that their second take made the CD. I Love You is a Cole Porter song that is so flexible that it has been interpreted by John Coltrane, adventurous dixieland groups and now
the Johnny Varro-Ken Peplowski Quartet. They tear into it and, as Eddie Condon might say, "didn't hurt anyone."
Louis Armstrong's Someday, You'll Be Sorry was arguably his most famous original. Varro remembers that he was taught the song by Bobby Hackett, who would have enjoyd the relaxed version by the quartet.
"Near the end of the session, Mat Domber asked 'How about some blues?' Ken and I played a spontaneous blues and it turned into Blues On 57th Street. Funny thing is I didn't think it was going that well and I wanted to do another take, but everyone else insisted that we hear it first. After I listened to the playback, I agreed that it had actually turned out really great." 57th Street is the location of the studio where this bit of musical magic took place.
The program concludes with Varro, Peplowski and Ascione playing The Way You Look Tonight. "This song's lyrics are so great that I'm glad, with our voices, that we didn't sing them!"
Johnny Varro is very happy with the music that resulted from this project. "The music is fun, comfortable and satisfying. Sometimes I do not enjoy listening to my recordings since I can be very self-critical, but this one I have in the car and enjoy hearing." Listeners will have no problem enjoying each of the 15 performances, whether it is solo, duet, trio or quartet. Johnny Varro, as usual, excels in every format.
— Scott Yanow, May 2008
(Scott Yanow, who has penned over 500 liner notes, is the author of nine jazz books including Trumpet Kings, Swing, Classic Jazz, Jazz On Film and Jazz On Record 1917-76.