Chuck Leavell: The Magic of Finger Painting

Alan Bryson By

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Instruments, Studios and Venues

AAJ: I noticed you played a Yamaha C7 piano on Southscape (Evergreen Arts, 2005). It had a beautiful sound and the engineer captured its rich bass very well. People seem to swoon about this piano with its sound and action. Is this still your instrument of choice?

CL: Yes, and I think you'll find that recording studios across the country seem to favor the C7. I can tell you that there are quite a few of them in Nashville. I just think the C7 records very well. It might not have the low end that the nine-foot would have, but for some reason it seems to really sing. And what I have at home is a C7. I love it and I think Yamaha is very consistent, and that quality is an important thing. The one at the Sound Kitchen records beautifully and it's a joy to play.

AAJ: You've worked in so many studios. What other ones really stand out in your mind?

CL: Going back to Alabama, Muscle Shoals Sound was a magical studio, and while I didn't do a tremendous amount of work there, I did work there on occasion. Maybe it was special because I did some early recordings there and was excited to get on those records at that point as a musician, being young and eager to make records. Muscle Shoals Sound had a history—everybody from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan and Wilson Pickett worked there and, of course, Duane Allman worked there a lot. It was a very special place.

Because of the history we had at Capricorn, we certainly had magical moments at that studio, and recorded so many records there. That's where "Jessica" and the entire Brothers and Sisters (Capricorn, 1973), Laid Back (Capricorn, 1973), and Highway Call (Capricorn, 1974) were recorded.

AAJ: Is that studio still in existence?

CL: No, but there is discussion about trying to revitalize it, and I'm hoping they will bring it back at some point. So that stands out and, let's see, Capitol Studio in Los Angeles is an extremely special place to work. There's also something special about Ardent Studios in Memphis—I think that it's one of the survivors. Amazingly, that studio has been around since the '60s and there have been some wonderful records made there.

AAJ: You've played at all sorts of venues—intimate clubs, the Royal Albert Hall, the Beacon Theater, stadiums. As a musician, what are some of your favorite venues?

CL: When I'm playing my own shows, I favor the smaller theaters or special rooms. One that comes to mind is the historic opera house in the city of Hawkins, Georgia. It's probably about a 350 seat room with a historic feel, and the community supports the theater and I like that. When you have a community that has a treasure and supports it, I think that's very special. Other ones that I would name would be the Grand Opera House in Macon, Georgia. It's a larger room, about 900 capacity, but a very, very special place.

In terms of venues throughout my career, how can I not mention Carnegie Hall? That's an amazing place. In recent times, the Palace of Esterhazy was a very special place to play. It was where Joseph Haydn was given carte blanche to build a room for performances of his compositions. I was able to play there on the Green Leaves & Blue Notes Tour.

In terms of historic moments I'll mention that just recently we saw the 35th anniversary of the Watkins Glen Show where the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead and the Band played. At the time, in 1973, it set a record for the largest-attended musical event, with over 600,000 people. The other one I would mention would be the recent show we had with the Stones in Rio on Copacabana Beach playing to a million and a half people.


Solo Recordings

AAJ: I'd like to start with Southscape (Evergreen Arts, 2005), an instrumental album recorded in Nashville. This is one of those recordings were everything comes together, with its lush sound, strong material, and excellent players. You really did capture the sense of the South. Could you share a bit about the sessions and the players?

CL: I had written that material and the time had come to do something with it and my first thought was Michael Rhodes. Michael is a friend. I worked with him before and he had been very encouraging to me. Michael was really instrumental in helping me to make the decisions as to where to go and who to work with. He said, "Man, if you're ever ready to do something, call me and I'll do whatever I can to help—whether it's playing or helping to get the studio together, or whatever it might be." I called Michael and he suggested the studio, which was the Sound Kitchen. He also suggested Chuck Ainlay as the engineer—he said, "Just trust me on this." He'd been working a lot with Chad Cromwell on drums and thought he'd really fit the bill. The other musicians that I brought to the table were Tim Ries and Randall Bramblett. Having co-written some material with Randall, I certainly wanted him on it, and we've been friends a long time anyway. And with Tim being such a strong jazzer and strong musician I wanted to bring him into the picture too.

AAJ: And Larry Carlton.

CL: I wanted to keep the focus as much as possible on a quartet—piano, bass, drums and sax—but Larry has been a friend and I had worked with him on projects before. Since he lives in the Nashville area and there were a couple of songs that were asking for a guitar, he certainly came to mind immediately.

AAJ: Let's talk a bit about another one of your solo piano recordings, Forever Blue (Evergreen Arts, 2001). It sounds like having Chuck Leavell performing a solo concert in the living room. How did you and co-producer Paul Hornsby get such a warm and intimate feel on that recording?

CL: Doing a solo piano record was something that had been on my mind for a while. It was a little intimidating to do because you're naked to the world—it's you, the piano, and fate! I wanted it to be diverse and I think we achieved that with the opening, which is also the title cut. It is basically just an improvised blues, then a gospel song, "Higher Ground," a traditional song with "Georgia on My Mind," and then I wanted to revisit some of the things I'd done that were written for solo piano like "Song for Amy" and "Blue Rose." And you're right—the intention was to make it feel intimate. I'd been on tour and I didn't want to go away to make that record; I wanted to do it locally. Capricorn Records was out of the picture at that time and Paul Hornsby had the best studio in town. Paul's been a very good friend and mentor to me, so I felt like it would be comfortable to work with him. Paul was wonderful with me—very encouraging—and it made a big difference to have somebody behind the glass who made me feel good about what I was doing.


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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