Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Johnny Varro's Classic Swing Admiration Society

Pianist Johnny Varro cut his musical teeth on the classic swing side of jazz in the late 1940s, working over the next few decades with some of its masters. They included Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison, Bobby Hackett, Coleman Hawkins and Pee Wee Russell, among many others.  

Johnny Varro
At age 89, Varro remains one of the sub-genre's most fervent ambassadors. He brought his take on the music back to Port Charlotte FL on Monday, November 11, sneaking a few lesser-heard gems into a familiar repertoire for the Florida edition of his Swing 7 band. This was the band's fourth Charlotte County Jazz Society appearance in eight years, and it include a couple of notable personnel changes.
Randy Sandke

Long-time sidemen Jeff Lego (trombone), Eddie Metz Jr. (drums), Mark Neuenschwander (bass) and Rodney Rojas (tenor sax) were joined by Randy Sandke on trumpet and Pete BarenBregge on alto sax and clarinet. Sandke, a fixture in Varro's New York-based Swing 7 unit, moved to Venice last year. BarenBregge, longtime reed player and former musical director of the Washington DC-based Airmen of Note, also calls Venice home now. He was subbing for the night and fit in seamlessly, sight-reading Varro's book for the first time and adding fine solos on both alto and clarinet.

Pete BarenBregge
Varro is a fine pianist, but his greatest gift is his skill as an arranger. His intricate, swinging charts freshened vintage compositions from the Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman band books, as well as material from Benny Carter, Gerry Mulligan, Benny Moten and Al Jolson. The music sparkled and swung mightily as the band dug deep into Varro's unison horn lines that featured subtle variations and modulations for various instruments.

Jeff Lego
The night's 18-composition repertoire included Mulligan's "Disc Jockey Jump," which the baritone saxophonist wrote for the Gene Krupa band, Duke Ellington's "What Am I Here For?," "Moten Swing" and one Varro original, "Hag's Blues," which he wrote to honor late bassist Bob Haggart. 

Neuenschwander, Metz
Other staples included Carter's "Pom Pom," "On the Sunny Side of the Street, the Artie Shaw hit "Cross Your Heart," penned by Lewis Gensler, trombonist Vic Dickenson's "Constantly," and two Basie Band classics, tenor saxophonist Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings" and rhythm guitarist Freddie Green's "Corner Pocket."

Material that Varro brought to Port Charlotte for the first time or hadn't performed here in recent years included W.C. Handy's 1917 composition "Beale Street Blues," which was one of several clarinet features for BarenBregge, "One, Two, Button Your Shoe," a 1930s tune that had been recorded by Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday, Jimmy Hamilton's "Big Shoe," Jolson's "Avalon," and "Coquette" from the John Kirby band book.
BarenBregge, Rojas

The inspired players turned in one superb solo after another throughout the night. Varro & Co. closed things out with a feverish take on Al Cohn's "Brandy and Beer." BarenBregge and Rojas went head to head in an alto and tenor saxophone duel reminiscent of Cohen's classic tenor summits with longtime musical partner Zoot Sims. The audience responded with a standing ovation for the night's performance.

The concert drew a crowd of nearly 300 to the Cultural Center of Charlotte County's William H. Wakeman III Theater.
Johnny Varro's Swing 7

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