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Johnny Varro Swing Seven: Swingin’ on West 57th Street

Swing is one of the most used, misused and misunderstood words in our language. If somehow they could get together in that great union hall in the sky, musicians from Buddy Bolden to Bix Beiderbecke to Bunny Berigan and from King Oliver to Count Basie to Duke Ellington would all agree that syncopation is the most vital ingredient in the DNA of jazz. But you don’t have to have names beginning with “B” or be part of royalty to realize that most jazz fans (and that would include musicians) are on shakier ground when it comes to defining the various styles of jazz.

Thanks to Arbors Records, a particular idiom is being preserved. The label has an ever-growing catalog of the genre known as swing, which applies to an era that flourished between roughly (very roughly) 1930 and 1950, from the end of Dixieland to the evolving modernity of bebop. There are no clean lines of separation because musicians’ creativity results in a lot of overlapping.

Bless Johnny Varro for doing what he does so well. He and his sidemen on these recordings believe in a particular 2/4 style of swinging. He’s not only a fine pianist, but also an excellent arranger. All the guys on these dates execute those charts cleanly. If it’s not your cup of tea, so what? No harm done. Not everyone digs free-form, experimental jazz when it jettisons bar lines and becomes atonal; not everybody can hop on the Trane or enjoy a Jelly Roll. There’s something for everyone out there, but virtually everyone will agree that Varro swings, and he does it cleverly.

The septet session, Swingin’ on West 57th St., allows him room to conjure up the spirit of John Kirby. That tight combo sound pervades, of all things, Chopin’s “Military Polonaise” and “Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairies” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet. Not everything is that heady. It’s mostly standards, and considering there are 16 tracks, there isn’t too much stretch-out room-usually a chorus, often half a chorus. Even with those restrictions, there are plenty of standout solos: the smooth tones of trombonist Dan Barrett; the Goodman-influenced clarinet work by Ken Peplowski, who doubles on alto and reveals the influence of Johnny Hodges; Varro’s piano work, whether comping or soloing; the surprising bop flurries by trumpeter Randy Sandke and tenorist Scott Robinson on the obscure Hodges shuffle “You Need to Rock.” There are so many highlights on Swingin’ on West 57th St., with most of them credited to Varro’s writing.

The quartet album, All That Jazz, with a front line of Varro and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, affords everyone plenty of stretch-out room, and they are propelled very nicely by bassist Nicki Parrott and drummer Joe Ascione. Kellso has the inventiveness and tonal beauty of Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff. Again Varro has unearthed some obscure oldies: Frank Loesser’s “The Lady’s in Love With You,” a fine vehicle for Kellso; James P. Johnson’s oddly named “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid”; and “Was I to Blame for Falling in Love With You?” which is highlighted by a Kellso chorus with only stride piano for backing. Incidentally, the overall approach to “How Deep Is the Ocean?” defies categorization in terms of style or era.

Piano duets depend on more than finding two pianos in tune; it requires two pianists who are in tune with each other stylistically and can agree totally on the changes. On A Pair of Kings, this pair of aces, Varro and the recently deceased Ralph Sutton, easily overcomes the diplomacy and they even manage to stay out of each other’s way. The CD was recorded live more than two yeas ago in Fort Lauderdale and the stereo separation is so sensitive you can follow producer Gunnar A. Jacobsen’s ambitious schematic of who is taking the lead, for how many bars and often in what key! Highlights: Ralph Sutton’s solo explorations of “Tea for Two” with its clever interpolation of the verse; his stride resuscitation of the museum piece “Farewell Blues”; and a medley of five Fats Waller classics. A tip of the hat, too, to Varro for his solo on “Jitterbug Waltz.”

And a tip of the hat to Arbors Records for presenting an excellent history lesson in swing that swings.

Originally Published