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Ralph Sutton and Johnny Varro: A Pair of Kings

J. Robert Bragonier By

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Ralph Sutton and Johnny Varro: A Pair of Kings Well, Arbors Records has done it again: well recorded jazz from its glory years, played today by the people who played it then. This 2001 album documents two of the most reliable of these players, with all the sophistication, excitement, and spontaneity of a live performance.

The late Ralph Sutton was born in Hamburg, Missouri in 1922 and played the piano virtually his entire life. He joined the Jack Teagarden Orchestra at age 19, a several-year gig that was interrupted when the U.S. Army called. He played with Bob Crosby in New York in 1966 and with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band until 1974. In 1979, he and Jay McShann did a cross-country tour that resulted in the album The Last of the Whorehouse Piano Players, memorable if for no other reason than its title. Influenced by James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, Sutton nonetheless clearly developed a sound of his own, with a powerful left hand and an excellent sense of rhythm and harmonics.

Johnny Varro was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930 and played at the Central Plaza in New York City from 1946. At jam sessions on the Lower East Side, the young Varro met players of the era such as Willie “The Lion” Smith, “Big Sid” Catlett, Joe Thomas, “Hot Lips” Page, Joe Sullivan, Pete Brown, and others. After a stint in the Service, he toured with Bobby Hackett and often appeared at Nick’s and Eddie Condon’s, where he succeeded Sutton as intermission pianist. He ultimately became Condon’s band pianist, playing with and learning from a host of legends. In 1953 he moved to Miami Beach to work on the Jackie Gleason Show, subsequently touring the country and spending 14 years in Los Angeles. Now a resident of Tampa Bay, he records with his own Swing 7 and is featured as sideman on many Arbors CDs, as are bassist Phil Flanigan and drummer Ed Metz, Jr.

This album was recorded in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; you’ll want to know that Sutton is on the left channel, and Varro is on the right, with good separation. Varro trios on Ellington’s “What Am I Here For?” and “It’s You or No One,” while Sutton returns the favor on “Tea for Two” and “Farewell Blues,” the latter as a solo. All tunes are standards, and if you can suppress the temptation to whistle or hum along, you have more self-control than myself. These two masters save the best till last; the “Fats Waller Medley” is more than 15 minutes of utter enjoyment. Sutton solos on “Say Yes,” the “other waltz,” while Varro solos on “Jitterbug”; both share choruses with each other and the rhythm section on the other selections. Both pianists segue smoothly and empathetically from tune to tune, and Flanigan and Metz trade tasty fours on the ninth chorus of “Stealin’ Apples.”

This is the kind of CD that, as it begins to repeat, you think to yourself, “Well, I’ll be darned. How could 73 minutes of music have played that quickly and enjoyably?”

Track Listing: Swing That Music; All By Myself; What Am I Here For? St. Louis Blues; Crazy Rhythm; Tea for Two; I Can

Personnel: Ralph Sutton and Johnny Varro (piano), Phil Flanigan (bass), and Ed Metz, Jr. (drums)

Title: A Pair of Kings | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Arbors Records


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