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Ralph Sutton - At St. George Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol, England Print E-mail
Friday, 01 December 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    7
release year:    2006
label:    Arbors
reviewed by:    Scott Yanow

ImageWhen pianist Ralph Sutton emerged on the jazz scene in the late 1940s, he was already way out-of-date. It was as if a virtuoso at building horse and buggies had arrived on the scene, or a great silent movie director. Sutton was a master at stride piano, the style formed by James P. Johnson before 1920 and whose major practitioners included Fats Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith. It is called stride because the pianist’s left hand strides back and forth between bass notes and chords, stating the rhythm while the right hand plays melodic variations. Stride pianists are potential one-man bands who have particularly strong left hands. Stride was at the height of its popularity in the 1920s, although it remained the basis for swing pianists of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Slightly later players like Teddy Wilson and Nat King Cole had a lighter left hand, but their style was still related to stride.

During the swing era, the rhythm section began to develop as best exemplified by the one in Count Basie’s orchestra. Basie left a lot of space in his playing, giving the timekeeping function to the string bass (which became an essential instrument) and the rhythm guitar. Count Basie was originally influenced by Fats Waller and he occasionally broke out with hints of stride, but his generally sparse approach was a step towards the decline of the style.

When Bud Powell rose to prominence in 1945 with the rise of the bebop era, it was the end of stride piano as a major force. Powell dispensed with timekeeping altogether, using his left hand to irregularly accent chords while his right played rapid single-note lines. Veteran stride pianists like Willie “The Lion” Smith denigrated the bop pianists by calling them one-handed players but Bud Powell’s style became the basis for most jazz pianists up to the present time.
Ralph Sutton was just two years older than Powell but his style was two decades earlier. However, Sutton resisted bebop and simply played the music he loved, in a style similar to Waller and Johnson but without merely copying his idols. Almost alone among those in his generation (Dick Wellstood and Dick Hyman were practically his only competitors), Sutton kept stride piano alive and relevant. While most pianists in trad and Dixieland groups actually played the lighter swing style, Sutton could be a real powerhouse. He played with the who’s who of trad jazz including Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison, Bob Scobey and a 1970s group modestly called The World’s Greatest Jazz Band, and never sounded uninspired or bored.

Ralph Sutton at St. George Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol, England may have an overly long title, but the solo concert is quite enjoyable. The double-CD set was originally broadcast on the BBC, and there are two introductions by Alyn Shipton that sum up parts of Sutton’s life. Very pleased with the piano that he got to perform on, Sutton sounds in a happy mood, verbally introducing songs and telling a couple of stories, even talking over the music in spots. He sounds as if he is entertaining friends in his living room.

Recorded on Aug. 3 and 10, 1992, before a respectful and very attentive audience, Sutton performs songs associated with Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, composer Willard Robison, Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson, plus standards from the 1920s and ‘30s. Highlights include “Tea For Two,” “Viper’s Drag,” “Echo of Spring,” “Dinah,” Bob Zurke’s “Eye Opener” and “St. Louis Blues.” One regrets the lack of a really rapid showpiece, but otherwise Sutton is in top form, constructing a delightful and charming set.

Throughout this relaxed recital, Ralph Sutton never sounds as if he is trying to keep a dead style alive, instead coming across as a brilliant pianist playing timeless music. He is proof that newer styles do not “replace” older ones and that, if the music is great to begin with, it can still be played with enthusiasm and creativity decades later.

Recorded straight from the BBC broadcast, the sound quality is impeccable. One is aware of the audience’s presence and they clearly inspire Sutton, but they are mostly very quiet during the performances, signaling their approval of the music without making much noise other than bursting out with loud applause at the end of each song. The piano is superb and very well recorded, as is Sutton’s speaking voice. In other words, there is no reason for those who want to hear a great stride pianist not to pick up this twofer.

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