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Chuck Leavell: The Magic of Finger Painting

By Published: September 2, 2008
Music Made in Germany

AAJ: I want to focus next on your latest recording, Live in Germany: Green Leaves & Blue Notes Tour 2007 (Evergreen Arts, 2007). Disk one opens with Dr. Longhair's “In the Wee Wee Hours” and is followed by a mix of tunes from Sea Level, the Stones, the Allman Brothers, George Harrison and many more. You hooked up with some excellent young talent in Germany and it's an interesting sound because these guys are young European jazz players and their approach gives many of the blues and rock songs a very different feel. Please share a bit about the musicians, the recording and the German tour.

CL: My back was up against the wall on this because the tour was imminent and I needed a band. It was the original intent for me to do it totally solo, but we had a couple of promoters who would only book me with a band. I knew it would be prohibitively expensive to bring players from the States over, so I was very fortunate that Tim Reis had a contact with Paul Hoechstaedter, the drummer. As fate would have it, Paul was available and he brought the other players to the table. The technology was helpful because I was able to send mp3s to them since I didn't have notated charts for the guys. They heard the music and made their own charts. We were pressured because of the time factor—we only had two rehearsals before the first show. Because of their professionalism it just came together and, as you mentioned, these guys are all jazzers. They come from a difference place than I come from—I come from soul, R&B, and rock. And they did indeed bring a completely different perspective, which was a happy accident! If I had planned for that it probably wouldn't have worked out that way, or it wouldn't have turned out as well. They really rose to the occasion—they did their homework. They were very well prepared. I say in the liner notes that the stars lined up in that particular performance and it's true. Very rarely does that happen. The people who put the radio program together—Konnie Keller, the engineer Rainer Schwarz and the producer Christoph Classen—just put together this magical evening. It was well recorded, the audience was with us from the first song till the last, and the feedback between us and the audience was very special, as was the communication between the musicians.

In terms of the material, it's pretty obvious that it's a career retrospective. This is what I do—my life has been spent working with those particular artists, whether it's the Allman Brothers, Sea Level, Eric Clapton, or George Harrison. I was also able to throw some of my own solo material into the mix—that's who I am and I think the CD reflects that.

l:r Martin Scales, Christian Diener, Chuck Leavell, Lutz Haefner, Paul Hoechstaedter

AAJ: I really enjoyed your take on “Compared to What.” Your substitute guitarist, who came in at the last minute, really ripped that one up!

CL: Yeah, Frank Kuruc, who came in because Martin Scales couldn't make the gig, deserves special mention. Frank was amazing. I give high compliments to him for really stepping up to the plate with literally only a couple hours of preparation. That song is one of my all-time favorites, and a favorite of so many other jazz musicians. That was an historic recording with Les McCann and Eddie Harris at Montreux. When I first heard that recording, it just flipped me out. It's almost like sacred ground and I was almost a little reluctant to step on it, but because I love that song so much and I wanted to pay tribute to those guys, I felt like it was appropriate to do. I was really pleased by the way it turned out.

AAJ: You guys sound great together and you enjoy Germany. Is there any chance you'll come back and do a studio recording—perhaps something ambitious with a larger band?

CL: I have nothing planned at the moment, but it was such a positive experience and Germany's been so good to me in terms of the fans, and the acceptance. This record is going to be coming out in Germany in September, so I have support from the ZYX record label, the fans, and the musicians. So, yes, there is a strong possibility. It's hard to say something for sure about the immediate future, and who knows what the Stones may have in mind, but that's a great opportunity and I hope to take advantage of it at some point—to do some new material and go into the studio with these guys.

AAJ: Speaking of Germany, I'm curious about what you think of your fellow keyboardist, and our first lady of jazz here in Germany, Barbara Dennerlein.

CL: I've really enjoyed Outhipped (Verve 1999) and her live CD and the clips I've seen. Wow, what a talent! She's in a league of her own, I can tell you that. From that story about her and Jimmy Smith, I'm sure Jimmy was intimidated with her opening up the set. With all due respect to him, she's just absolutely amazing. I'm constantly amazed by Hammond players who are good with their feet as well as their hands, and she certainly is.

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