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Ralph Sutton: At St. George Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol England

This double CD of a 1992 solo concert was recorded live by the BBC and released in 2006 by Arbors. The venue is known for its great chamber acoustics, and now the album will be known for spreading the gospel of Harlem stride in the person of Ralph Sutton: a witty distillation of James P. Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Fats Waller, Willie “the Lion” Smith and Art Tatum. At the time of the concert, Sutton was nearly 70 and at the peak of his creative abilities. He had also collected enough personal memories and anecdotes to fill St. George and he shared them liberally with the audience-often while playing, reminiscent of Waller’s delightful, incessant chatter.

Like Waller, Sutton’s left hand is forceful and accurate at any speed; like Tatum, Sutton’s right-hand runs are models of clarity, and again like Tatum, he constantly reharmonizes, changes key at the slightest whim and interpolates other tunes at unexpected places. He exudes plenty of charm as he weaves stories about piano greats from the past or adds personal insights to great old standards: “Sophisticated Lady” and “Ring Dem Bells” from his Ellington medley (which Sutton cleverly referred to as a “madly”); neglected Waller gems, such as “Viper’s Drag,” “Say Yes” and “The Ladies Who Sing With the Band”; Willard Robison classics like “Old Folks,” “Cottage for Sale” and “‘Taint So”; and a real ear-opener by Bob Zurke, “Eye-Opener.” After two dozen memorable performances that included plenty of stretching out, Sutton climaxed the concert with a robust, boogie-woogie treatment of “St. Louis Blues.”

A few years before Sutton passed away in 2001 at the age of 79, he heard a tape of the concert. In a remark that explains why he enjoyed himself so much at St. George, Sutton recalled, “That was the best damn piano I ever played.” Now you know what to expect in terms of sound quality.

Originally Published