- Johnny Varro, piano and arrangements
- Warren Vaché, cornet
- Harry Allen, tenor sax
- Nicki Parrott, bass
- Chuck Riggs, drums
West 57th St., NY
12-13 Aug 2010
Arbors ARCD 19418
The hallmarks of the Varro Quintet – neat ensemble lines, beautifully concise solos, and a quietly persuasive swing – are evident here. If someone were to ask for a musical embodiment of twenty-first century Mainstream jazz, you will find it on this CD.
The Guardian – review of Speak Low
This modest little gem could easily get overlooked in the monthly avalanche of releases. Varro is a pianist whose long career has been spent playing with America's finest, and his classy quintet has all the qualities of good, latter-day swing. The 14 numbers – all standards but none of them done to death – are treated with relaxed, almost casual grace, moving seamlessly from ensemble to solo and back again. Varro's airy briskness sets the tone, impeccably maintained by trumpeter Warren Vaché and tenor saxophonist Harry Allen. It may sound easy, but very few can do it as well as this. – July 24, 2011, by Dave Gelly
Radio Swiss Jazz Likes "Once I Loved"
"Once I Loved" from Johnny's Speak Low was selected by listeners of Radio Swiss Jazz as one of the most popular tunes. Number one, in fact. It is no wonder that the sensual bossa nova beat and the creative solos are what makes it an awesome choice. It's like a Christmas gift all wrapped up and tied with a bow. Enjoy!
- Speak Low
- I Wish I Knew
- Once I Loved
- Falling in Love With Love
- It Could Happen to You
- This Year's Kisses
- My Heart Stood Still
- All the Things You Are
- Waltz for Debby
- Sweethearts on Parade
- The Lamp Is Low
- Summer Samba (So Nice)
Notes by Gunnar Jacobsen with Michael Steinman
Johnny Varro is a consummate swing pianist, an elegant improviser with flawless technique. His sound is unmistakable, his touch light and airy, whether he is playing solo, trio, or in a band. And although he harks back to the great jazz tradition of Teddy Wilson and Billy Kyle, Johnny is very much his own man. Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Kenny Davern, and Eddie Condon recognized this, as do the best contemporary jazz players here and abroad.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Johnny began studying the piano when he was ten. While still a young man, he was introduced to the jazz scene on the Lower East Side by Jack Crystal, Billy's uncle. A versatile player, Johnny met and jammed with Hot Lips Page, Sidney Catlett, Joe Thomas, Pete Brown, and others at the Stuyvesant Casino and the Central Plaza. This exposure led to his first professional gig with Bobby Hackett, then to a steady job as an intermission pianist at Eddie Condor's succeeding Ralph Sutton and Johnny became London's band pianist of choice. Mention a New York jazz legend – from Red Allen to Jo Jones to Roy Eldridge – Johnny's played with them all, as well as hanging out with players such as Joe Sullivan and Willie "The Lion" Smith.
When Johnny moved to Miami Beach in 1965, he worked for Jackie Gleason as well as gigging with Billy Butterfield, Flip Phillips, and Phil Napoleon. Fourteen years later, when he moved to Los Angeles, his associates included Red Norvo, Eddie Miller, and Jack Sheldon. Johnny spent five years playing at Gatsby's in Brentwood, a plush restaurant often frequented by Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Tony Bennett, Henry Mancini, and other luminaries. During this California sojourn, Johnny created his Swing 7, a group that has recorded four rewarding Arbors discs. Today, Johnny performs regularly on jazz cruises, parties, and festivals here and overseas.
The music on this CD is special, but Johnny's explanation of its genesis has his characteristic matter-of-factness: "When Mat Domber asked me about doing another session, I said I'd like to try something different, a swing quintet. I thought of who I'd like to use, and I had the answer in a few seconds: Warren and Harry are the perfect front line, and I hadn't done anything with Nicki or Chuck for a while. Choosing the songs was also easy – I wanted some things that hadn't been played to death. And I knew this quintet would treat them right. Those composers went through a whole lot of trouble to write such beautiful melodies! What's the point of disguising them as so many players did? My idea was to play around the melody, without losing it. You know what the song is at all times, and that kind of playing is harder to do than just blasting through the changes."
Johnny chose players he respects and admires, but they evoke the same feelings in the jazz listening audience. Since each player is well-known, thirty-two bars of biography will suffice.
Warren Vaché apprenticed early with the great trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin. He began as a player in the Condon tradition, but has never stood still, moving from Bobby Hackett to Blue Mitchell, always remaining himself Warren has played with every kind of ensemble from a trio with John Bunch to a Benny Goodman sextet to a Scottish string ensemble. He has most recently recorded on Arbors with John Allred and Tardo Hammer (Top Shelf, ARCD 19399, which received **** in Down Beat). Warren's cornet playing can be deeply tender on ballads or fiery, racing in intense, acrobatic solo lines, and he's also a charming, casual singer.
Harry Allen's beautiful tone and irrepressible rhythm make him the first-call tenor saxophonist in a multitude of musical situations – in duet with Ehud Asherie, backing up singers, or playing soaring lines over a large ensemble. Like Warren, Harry has performed with everyone from Rosemary Clooney to Ray Brown and Bucky and John Pizzarelli. He is a masterful player, whether he is breathing deep feeling into Cry Me a River or speeding through an Al Cohn line.
When Nicki Parrott is hired for a performance, audiences know that they will be hearing a world-class bassist and a sly, engaging singer and songwriter. She's a late bloomer – beginning on piano and flute but only coming to the string bass at fifteen. Nicki has played and recorded extensively – in duets with Rossano Sportiello, and in larger groups with everyone from Joe Wilder to Billy Taylor, Dick Hyman, and the New York Pops. Nicki is also dedicated to working with underprivileged children. She believes that teaching them to play music will keep them focused on succeeding in school and developing as young adults.
Chuck Riggs believes in "time" and this shows in his playing. He was encouraged to come to New York City in 1976 by no less a jazz authority than Roy Eldridge. Chuck has lifted the bands of Scott Hamilton, Bob Wilber, Dick Wellstood, Kenny Davern, Ruby Braff, and many others. His most recent work has been as a member of the Harry Allen Quartet.
The songs Johnny chose for this CD testify to his love for deep melodies, compositions that aren't the usual half-dozen jazz favorites played at parties and festivals.
The insinuating Speak Low is a song that Johnny has always loved, "It isn't the usual thirty-two bar standard and the minor third lift in the in A section makes for some interesting lines." Johnny's introductions are always lessons in swing, and Chuck's brushes underscore the intriguing variation on the melody before Harry takes off, his sound imploring. Johnny's chorus rings; Warren soars. Nicki's woody eloquence is a marvel; the band returns for a compact yet propulsive variation on the theme.
I Wish I Knew is most often associated with Harry Edison. Johnny says, "It's never played so it's fresh for improvising new ideas." Our Harry starts with an engaging melodic paraphrase; Warren alternates between his own extensions and sidelong glances at the melody before Johnny lights up Harry Warren's melody and harmony uniquely, leading to a closing line reminiscent of Buck Clayton and Coleman Hawkins.
Chuck's dancing beat brings in the lovely Latin song Once I Loved, "not the conventional bossa nova. I like the B part that flows on past the expected ending, allowing the player to create some interesting sequences." This performance is tender throughout, as Harry and Warren hand off the melody to each other before joining forces. Wonderful unity among the rhythm section, and Johnny's lines gleam before this performance ends up in a murmured conversation. Johnny modestly says that Falling in Love with Love is a song "that swings itself After the piano choruses Warren and Harry chose to play the eight-bar and four-bar chase choruses and swing their butts off in so doing. The rhythm section is superb." Amen!
It Could Happen to You is "a song rarely played but now gaining recognition. The first four bars and the 17th through the 20th bars have such great bass lines they lead to great melodic passages. I suggested that each of us play two choruses into the final ensemble." Chuck propels the band with his great variety of sounds, and Nicki's resonant solo would get anytone's attention.
Tangerine, says Johnny, "is always a swinging tune. I remember playing the tune with Warren at a memorial session for Rick Fay and I never forgot how it swung then." Happy for us that Johnny decided to let us hear this for all time: the band shouts without ever raising its voice!
You can't capture the past, but This Year's Kisses is a lovely tribute to its glories – the 1956 version of this Irving Berlin song by Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, and Roy Eldridge. No one in this quintet seeks to imitate anyone else, but the mood of the first recording wafts over this one. Harry's ascent at the end of the bridge is especially moving, as is Warren's sweet delicacy. The only problem with this track is that, like a kiss, it's over too soon.
From his opening hi-hat introduction, Chuck propels My Heart Stood Still, a track where everything is in motion, "Each of us took two choruses. On certain songs it takes one chorus to warm up and two to get really cooking." Nicki and Chuck evoke the teamwork of Milt Hinton and Jo Jones, and the soloists soar.
All the Things You Are is "one of the most beautiful yet challenging songs ever written. We played it at a moderate tempo so the melody isn't buried." You'll want to listen closely to Johnny's thoughtfid solo and fine support throughout, and the memorably terse closing ensemble.
Although Johnny began his career in what some would call "traditional" jazz, the music he loves to play doesn't come to a halt in 1945. He loves Bill Evans' haunting Waltz for Debby (this version the soundtrack for very hip ballroom dancers) and Four, "a great bebop tune" that is credited to Miles Davis, although many other musicians had a hand in it. Notice all the little orchestral tricks Johnny employs on Four, making the result so much more than the usual performance.
Sweethearts on Parade would probably have had little renown among improvisers had it not been for Louis Armstrong, who put his own stamp on this Carmen Lombardo song. After Johnny's Basle-inflected introduction, the quintet takes the song on at an easy tempo that honors Louis, the Count, and his early associate Ben Webster.
Johnny says, "Swinging Ravel is a kick, and I have loved the smooth melody of The Lamp is Low for years." The hallmarks of the Varro Quintet -- neat ensemble lines, beautifully concise solos, and a quietly persuasive swing -- are evident here.
Summer Samba (also known as So Nice) has "some fine chord progressions and is fun to play. It's never performed at jazz parties or festivals, so I thought it would be fine for this quintet date."
If someone were to ask me fora musical embodiment of twenty-first century Mainstream jazz, I would reach for this CD. I predict you will too.
– Gunnar Jacobsen with Michael Steinman, December 2010
(Gunnar Jacobsen, past president of the International Association of jazz Record Collectors, has been involved with jazz for many years and his company, Puppy Jazz, specializes in hard to find classic jazz and musician's private labels. Michael Steinman writes for Cadence and All About Jazz and has created Jazz Lives, a thriving jazz blog with a global audience.