Johnny Varro played with the elder statesmen of classic swing jazz in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, working with Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Roy Eldridge and Pee Wee Russell to name but a few. Now at 87, he is one of the elder statesmen.
Pianist Varro returned to Port Charlotte with the Florida edition of his Swing Seven band on Monday, November 13. It was the band’s third appearance in five years in the Charlotte County Jazz Society’s concert series.
The band included saxophonists Terry Myers (alto and clarinet) and Rodney Rojas (tenor), trumpeter Charlie Bertini, trombonist Jeff Lego, bassist Mark Neuenschwander and drummer Eddie Metz Jr. The roster was identical to Varro’s October 2012 visit. A couple of subs were aboard in the band’s November 2014 concert.
Varro is the master of genteel swing, both as a player and arranger of classic jazz standards. This time, he also shared two originals, the lovely ballad “Afterglow” and “Hag’s Blues,” an intricate and spirited piece that he wrote in honor of Bob Haggart. Neuenschwander's bass artistry was featured on this tip-of-the-hat to the bassist, arranger and composer who rose to prominence as a member of Bob Crosby’s Bobcats.
The evening’s repertoire leaned heavily on material from the 1930s Duke Ellington Orchestra and the 1940s and ‘50s Count Basie band book. The Ellington-related material included Duke’s “Just Squeeze Me,” “Ring Dem Bells,” “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Stompy Jones,” which he wrote as a feature for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, plus Hodges’ own “You Need to Rock.” The Basie-associated material included Benny Moten’s “Moten Swing,” rhythm guitarist Freddie Green’s “Corner Pocket” and Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings.”
Varro’s arrangements feature crisp yet intricate horn lines. He is one of the most generous bandleaders around when it comes to giving sidemen a lot of space to explore the music. That resulted in more than a few stunning solos, including a couple by Bertini with ultra-high notes that turned his face beet red.
The Brooklyn native’s easy-going banter served him well when memory failed as he introduced a couple of song titles or mixed up some composers during the generous 19-song program. There were more than a few chuckles when he introduced the 1926 Artie Shaw hit “Cross Your Heart” as “Cross My Heart” and said it was written by “somebody.” (Lewis Gensler wrote it). Mixing up his Bennys, the pianist attributed “Pom Pom” to trombonist Benny Morton. It was composed by Benny Carter. Concert highlights included Myers’ alto sax feature on “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” Rojas’ biting and intense playing on “Stompy Jones,” Lego on trombonist Vic Dickenson’s “Constantly” and Metz’s drum feature on “It’s a Wonderful World.” Everyone in the band was featured in Varro’s extended exploration of Duke’s exotic “Black and Tan Fantasy.” A two-saxophone feature, reminiscent of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, had Myers and Rojas going head-to-head on Cohn’s “Brandy and Beer.” Their shared intensity as they handed the melody back-and-forth and doubled at times, made this one a rousing concert closer.
About 250 people turned out for this event at the Cultural Center of Charlotte County’s William H Wakeman III Theater.