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Johnny Varro featuring Ken Peplowski: Two Legends of Jazz

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There are two qualities you can always expect from Arbors’ stable of artists: they unfailingly display compatibility and camaraderie, particularly in the front line. Take this session recorded a couple of years ago featuring two highly compatible comrades: pianist Johnny Varro and clarinetist Ken Peplowski. A generation separates them — Varro was born in 1930; Peplowski in ’59 — but only mathematically. They’re much closer idiomatically. And there is so much palpable respect on display, you can hear each one compromising stylistically until they seem to meet somewhere, ca. 1945. It’s fascinating and satisfying.

“Menina Flor,” a Luiz Bonfa bossa that deserves to be more widely heard, is routinely put through its paces for the opening chorus, followed by Peplowski’s solo, then Varro’s. But the fourth chorus is a stunner. Check your time code; at 3:33, with Varro about to begin chorus #4, Peplowski returns to the front line and they embark on a non-stop improvisation, simultaneously. Don’t think you’re being deprived of the clarity of each line; what you are being treated to is Counterpoint-101, with Johnny and Ken skillfully staying out of each other’s way as the flood of sixteenth notes provides such sweet, contrapuntal thunder.

Other highlights: bassist Frank Tate comes up with fine solo work on “Bluesette,” a lilting jazz waltz with a closing vamp you wish would not end. On “Secret Love,” Tate triple-stops some basic chords setting a refreshingly bright tempo that pleases drummer Joe Ascione; he can finally swap his discreet brushes for sticks and actually get to ride cymbals. On “A Smo-o-oth One” (sounds like “Love Is Just Around the Corner”), Ascione puts both sticks and brushes down and just uses hands to get a bongo effect behind piano and clarinet. That’s right: a trio. There are also a couple of duo tracks — just Johnny and Ken on “Love Locked Out,” and again on “Blues On 57th Street, ” a spontaneous first take. Varro’s only solo track produces a tasteful, poignant reading for “You’re A Sweetheart.”

Peplowski continues to astound me with his daring ideas and their flawless execution. Ditto for the relaxed “Someday, You’ll Be Sorry,” and the blues duet, “57th St.” Above all, check “Out of Nowhere” and the Cole Porter version of “I Love You” and see how easy he makes it all sound.

Originally Published