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JAZZ REVIEW : Diane Varga Sings at Alphonse’s Restaurant

Singer Diane Varga made a rare return to the performance stage Thursday night at Alphonse’s Restaurant in Toluca Lake. After devoting most of the last few years to the care and feeding of the various jazz groups who work under her management aegis at the Biltmore Hotel, Varga felt the need to once again air out her own considerable artistic skills.

An opening whirl through the dark lines of “Under Paris Skies” took her past an initial flutter of nervousness. By the time she and fluegelhornist Buddy Childers were exchanging phrases on “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” Varga had the look and the sound of a veteran performer who’s just gotten up to speed.

Although she worked with a sterling jazz back-up group, the former dancer-comedienne-singer revealed a far stronger pop orientation in most of her songs. “Goody Goody,” not exactly a jazz classic, was performed with a high-octane enthusiasm that had a lot more to do with sheer entertainment than it did with the subtleties of improvisational phrasing.

Her version of “Our Love Is Here to Stay” had somewhat richer jazz allusions, but it remained for Varga’s closing duet with Childers on “Bernie’s Tune” to finally generate a solid sense of swing. Varga would probably be the first to acknowledge that the improvisational electricity in her set was largely generated by the supporting ensemble of Childers, Plas Johnson on tenor sax, Brian O’Rourke on piano, John Leitham on bass and Ralph Penland on drums.

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Despite the ad-hoc nature of the ensemble and the lack of any unusual musical challenge, they played with a sense of cohesion that seemed to get better from one measure to the next. Johnson had an exceptional evening, playing heart-grooving, straight-ahead solos on an ensemble interpretation of “I Love You,” and behind Varga on “Goody, Goody.”

O’Rourke and Leitham were startlingly good--both as a team and individually--with the bassist, in particular, showing all the signs of an emerging star performer.

To Varga’s credit, and perhaps reflecting her good instincts as a jazz entrepreneur, she allowed the musicians plenty of room to stretch in and around her vocals. She may still have some pop in her singing, but her heart is all jazz.


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