Chuck Leavell has played keyboards and served as the musical director for The Rolling Stones since 1982, and is currently on tour with the Stones. He was a member of the Allman Brothers Band, Sea Level, and has also toured and recorded with Eric Clapton, The Black Crowes, George Harrison, David Gilmour, Gov’t Mule, John Mayer, and many more. On June 22nd he released his 7th solo album Chuck Gets Big, featuring rock and R&B classics such as “Route 66”, “Honky Tonk Woman”, “Statesboro Blues”, and others performed with a big band. Leavell found some time in between Stones shows to perform the material from his new album recently at New York City’s Gramercy Theatre, and after the show Live For Live Music contributor Brennan Carley caught up with Chuck to discuss the album and the show.
Brennan Carley: The last couple of albums you did (solo and with the Stones) were blues focused. What made you decide to do a big band format, and how/why did you decide to do the show with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band?
Chuck Leavell: It was by invitation that it happened. I had done a tour in Germany some years ago with a five-piece band, and did a broadcast over HR 1 radio as part of the run. HR 1 maintains a Big Band, and sometime after the broadcast they proposed to me that I come back and do a show with their Frankfurt Radio Big Band. I accepted the invitation and sent them a dozen songs on mp3. They had three different arrangers do charts for the songs. We had one rehearsal the day before the show, then did a live performance in a beautiful setting in the middle of a Castle outside of Frankfurt, which was recorded on multi-track. Because I had released a live record from the five-piece band tour that had some of the same songs on it, I didn’t want to do anything with the Big Band live recording for a while. So, I sat on the files for about 7 years and earlier this year pulled them out to listen. I was reminded what a great gig it was and decided to do a remix and release it. During the remix, I asked my engineer if he thought he could take the audience applause out of it, to make it more like a studio recording. I thought the audience sort of distracted the music. Anyway, it worked, and that is what Chuck Gets Big is…a live recording in front of an audience of about 700, but taking them out. I wanted it to be a more intimate experience, and I think it turned out that way.
BC: The album is much more of a blend of big band style, rock, blues, and jazz than I expected (initially assuming it would be straight big band style arrangements). How did that happen and how did you and the band blend your styles and influences?
CL: Well, that was the whole idea…to do arrangements for songs I am known for throughout my career. Some Stones, some Allman Brothers, some Sea Level, my own tunes, and tunes I just like playing. Some of it is more jazz-like, but most of it is “Duke Ellington/Gill Evans/Count Basie meets rock.
BC: Had you ever played in a big band format before and do you think you will do it again?
CL: I’ve played with full orchestra a few times, but had never done a proper big band until then. Since the record came out, I’ve done two shows with big bands. One in Savannah, Georgia headlining the Savannah Jazz Festival and a recent one at the Gramercy Theater in New York with top Big Apple players. Amazing cats, and I hope to do a few more in that area with them.
BC: Did anything surprise you when you heard the new arrangements? Did it take a lot of work to get them ready to perform, or was everything ready to go and it was just a matter of rehearsing them and then performing?
CL: They were very well prepared and had done one rehearsal without me. Then the one with me and a sound check—that was it. Same with the Savannah and New York players, only in NY we only had one rehearsal. But God, can those guys play.
BC: Some of the songs (“Route 66”, “Losing Hand”, “Georgia on my Mind”) come out of an R&B tradition. Did that make them easier to adapt to a big band format than the more rock-oriented songs (“Tumbling Dice”, “Southbound”)?
CL: I guess I wanted a certain mix of material, and as you suggest, some of the tunes are more easily adapted for that kind of orchestration. But songs like “Living In A Dream” and my songs “Blue Rose” and “Ashley” also adapted nicely. I think they all fit, but those stand out to me.
BC: How was your approach to playing different from either your other solo albums or playing with the Stones or other musicians?
CL: I just wanted to make sure I fit in with them. In some cases it meant playing less to let the band shine and in some cases it meant stepping up. I just went with the flow as best I could.
BC: In what ways do you feel this recording is similar to earlier recordings of the same material (e.g. you recorded a lot of the same songs on Live in Germany) and how is it different?
CL: It is very different and very unique simply by the nature that it is what it is—a 17-piece big band.
BC: Having played with a big band, has it changed how you think about or approach playing now? How has this project influenced your development as a player?
CL: No, I play like I play. I have a tour coming up with Mike Mills (bass/songwriter with REM) and Robert McDuffie (world-class world-renowned violinist) and a 14 or 15-piece orchestra that will be a celebration of Georgia music. I’ll adapt to that as best I can, but I will still be the same person and same musician I am when I’m by myself, with a 14 or 15-piece band, big band, whatever.
BC: What do the Stones think of the “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Tumbling Dice” covers?
CL: They all love it. I have done a video for “Tumbling Dice” where we got old black and white footage of different big bands with people dancing and put it together to sync up with the horn parts on the record. Then we got me on a stage in a theater in Atlanta with a piano and projected the footage on the big screen behind me. It turned out great and the guys all thought it was very clever and fun.
BC: For the live show at the Gramercy in NYC, who was in the band and how did you select the players?
CL: Again, all top-tier NY guys. Many of them gave up their gigs in Broadway theater shows and other settings for a couple of days to play with me, which was really an honor. Shawn Pelton, the current drummer for Saturday Night Live played drums. Conrad Korsch on bass, John McCurry on guitar. All first call cats.
BC: What was the set list for the live show at the Gramercy in NYC, was all material from Chuck Gets Big?
CL: We did the entire big band songs on the record, as well as adding “Comfortably Numb”, because I had done a tour with David Gilmour and sang on it as well as playing piano. We had an extra chart done for it which is really cool.
BC: Did you have any guests at the NYC show?
CL: We had some Stones players sit in on “Honky Tonk Women”: Sasha Allen [backup singer for the Rolling Stones], Karl Denson [Saxophone player for the Rolling Stones], Darryl Jones [bass player for the Rolling Stones], Matt Clifford [keyboard player alongside Chuck for the Rolling Stones] and Charlie Watts…bless him!
BC: Why only one live show to showcase Chuck Goes Big?
CL: It’s not an easy thing to put together, but now that we have done one we are looking into other possibilities.
BC: How is playing as a bandleader different than playing with the Stones, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, etc and which do you prefer?
CL: Hey… I just like playing, man.