Johnny Varro Swing 7 – Ring Dem Bells – Arbors Jazz ARCD 19362, 72:56 ****1/2:
(Johnny Varro, piano, arranger; Randy Sandke, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Scott Robinson, tenor sax; Ken Peplowski, alto sax, clarinet; Frank Tate, bass; Joe Ascione, drums)
Arbors Records releases are almost always as dependable as a Rolex watch. They keep superb time. They use the most professional sidemen backing a noted veteran leader. Their sidemen would be most labels’ top roster stars. In fact on Ring Dem Bells, Arbors Swing 7 band is made up of the cream of the crop brass matching up with all star reed players. Imagine featuring a front line of Randy Sandke and Dan Barrett with Scott Robinson and Ken Peplowski. These are among the BEST swing veterans still at the peak of their powers.
This is the fourth CD by the Swing 7. The great pianist, Johnny Varro, has played behind Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, and Eddie Condon, so Arbors has the class to go with the “A Team” and it shows. Varro’s arrangements are not formulaic, so even though the songs are classic American Songbook with Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton added for good measure, these standards are not rote predictable.
Stompy Jones, Ellington’s feature for Johnny Hodges, has Peplowski honoring Hodges but giving the tune his own reading. The same can be said for Randy Sandke, who has Sweets Edison choruses but takes off on his own series of bars. The Swing 7 with Varro leading the way is no ghost mini-band. No need with their talent…
Barrett is old school brass swing on Jelly Roll’s Sweet Substitute, and Peplowski’s clarinet is just perfect for “Morning Sunrise.” The ensemble playing on the title track shows that old time swing is still alive in the right hands and Varro’s arrangements bring back the joys we felt were gone by the 1950s. No one but Arbors is keeping these flames lit.
Other standouts include Varro’s charts for Ellington’s Come Sunday, a jazzy Chopin’s Minute Waltz, and Buddy Bolden’s Blues.
Ring Dem Bells is a jazz education on a single CD. You don’t have to be collecting Social Security to dig this classic swing jazz. Just be open to listen to arrangements that rival the best of old-school jazz. We can be hopeful that younger jazz musicians can have their ears opened so they can continue the tradition to a new generation of jazz fans when groups of third generation swing veterans like Johnny Varro’s Swing 7 retire. This music is too special to fade out in the 21st Century. Bless Arbors for doing their part to keep Swing alive!
TrackList: Corner Pocket, Stompy Jones, Yours is My Heart Alone, Sweet Substitute,
Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise, Ring Dem Bells, Only a Rose, Come Sunday, Suddenly It’s Spring, Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble, You Stepped Out of a Dream, Minute Waltz, One, Two Button Your Shoe, Buddy Bolden’s Blues, Sonny Speaks
– Jeff Krow