Pianist Johnny Varro seems most at home in obscure jazz materialnot only 50 or more years old, but in some cases, obscure even when it was first performed. Such was the case with more than half of the compositions he presented Monday night, November 11, with the Florida edition of his Swing 7 band at the Charlotte County Jazz Society concert series.
Sure, there were a couple of Duke Ellington staples ("What am I Here For?" and "Black and Fantasy"), as well as the jazz chestnuts Corner Pocket" by Basie Band rhythm guitarist Freddie Green, Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," On the Sunny Side of the Street" and Kurt Weill's Speak Low." But Varro & Co. also swung mightily through a lot of lesser-known gems.
For example: Ellington's Stompy Jones," first recorded in 1934 as a showcase for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, Franz Lehar's Yours is My Heart Alone," Dick Carey's frisky Swing Down to New Orleans," Benny Carter's John Kirby-like Pop Pom," tenor saxophonist Al Cohn's Brandy 'N Beer," and the closer, Mel Powell's Mission to Moscow."
With 84-year-old Varro still going strong, this edition of the Swing 7 had a couple of roster changes from its 2012 appearance at the Charlotte Cultural Center. It included Charlie Bertini on trumpet, Craig Christman on alto sax and clarinet, Jeff Lego on trombone, Mark Neuenschwander on bass, Greg Parnell on drums and Rodney Rojas on tenor sax.
They had toes-a-tappin' as they worked through Varro's intricate arrangements, charts that roared at times, but more often were filled with subtle modulations that enabled the full brass section to shine without players stepping on each other. Each band member had substantial solo space throughout the night.
Christman and Rojas turned in notable performances on Hodges' composition You Need to Rock" as the night wound down. And he wasn't talking about rock 'n' roll," Varro told the concert crowd. The band rocked and roared through it in swing fashion.Give Varro, house pianist at Eddie Condon's in New York back in the day, extra credit for avoiding tired material.