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April 2009

The Johnny Varro Swing 7
Ring Dem Bells
Arbors Records

In the ecclesiastics of swing, the Johnny Varro Swing 7 would be in the liberal camp. Pianist Varro, irrespective of his associations with neo-traditionalists, is no atavist trying to recreate the swing of yesteryear via musical Xeroxing; he’s more interested in invoking its spirit. So his charts here, while relying on tried-and-true strategies from the swing era—riffs, breaks, shout choruses, kickers—don’t hue close to earlier sources, even when he explicitly references earlier models. The charts and tempos are indubitably his own, with ballads often revved up and swingers like “Corner Pocket” pushed up a notch.

Varro’s liberality shows in his adventurous repertoire selections as well as his inventive charts. Franz Lehar’s “Yours Is My Heart Alone,” Rudolph Friml’s “Only a Rose” and even Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Suddenly It’s Spring,” are unusual jazz fodder, all turned into crisp, swinging vehicles. “You Stepped Out of a Dream” dares to dream a new, contrafact melody redolent of ’50s cool, while “Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble” is a grand tour of jazz from the two-beat ’20s to the suave ’40s.

Solos rarely exceed a chorus or two, and Varro has the increasingly rare talent of being able to tell a story in a compact space. A prime example: “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” bookended by Ken Peplowski’s dancing clarinet, highlighted by Dan Barrett’s double-barreled (mute, plunger) trombone solo, Randy Sandke’s swing-to-bop trumpet and Scott Robinson’s Pres-idential tenor sax. And for delightful exuberance, hear how Varro, bassist Frank Tate and drummer Joe Ascione drive the incrementally building swing and solos of the title track.

Originally published in April 2009
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