Album review: ‘Chuck Gets Big’ is big, indeed

Chuck Leavell

“Chuck Gets Big” with Chuck Leavell With The Frankfurt Radio Big Band.

A peach and a mushroom, the ocean’s tide, a tree, a lewd red tongue, and of course, family. All denote entities that have sustained pianist Chuck Leavell. The Georgia fruit and the heady fungus signify The Allman Brothers Band, which Leavell joined as a 20 year-old in 1972, and had a big hand in steering to a commercial peak.

Sea Level (“C. Leavell”) was his jazzy Allman Brothers splinter group whose sparkling music still resonates powerfully today. The Rolling Stones’ tongue may be the most recognizable stamp in the music industry. Leavell has been playing his singular piano with the Stones for 36 years now. And when he’s not rolling the world with the legendary rockers, he’s farming trees on his family plantation, or educating on forestry.

Chuck is big, but he comes off humble in every way. This Big signifies that he’s playing with a 16-piece German big band, their conductor, and two backing vocalists, live in concert. And big it is. Although the overall feel calls to mind classic 1930s to ‘40s swing era jazz, the songs explode with fresh, high-spirited rock attitude throughout the 70-minute set. So spacious and right is the sound, Leavell presented it in “studio album” form by eliminating all traces of the audience.

With a roll on the keys that calls to mind a child frolicking in a field, he ignites punchy, New Orleans-snaky rhythms and brass for Sea Level’s “King Grand,” followed in short order by a smoky, scintillating, Ray Charles-style read on the classic blues, “Losing Hand.” Thus, Leavell’s entire career-story commences to unfold, from inspiration to implementation, in ambitious style.

A big band playing “Honky Tonk Woman?” Surprisingly successful, the bold, sassy horns in rock ‘n’ roll lockstep with Leavell’s animated singing and piano pounding. “Blue Rose,” for his wife, and “Ashley,” for his daughter, both reflect personal paradise through tender and heated fusions of jazz and the blues, and are highlights of two of Leavell’s earlier solo albums.

Curiously, “Jessica,” which features Leavell’s signature piano solo within the music of The Allman Brothers Band, does not appear. But brass-blasted, celebratory runs through “Southbound” and “Statesboro Blues” do. Some arrangements are dramatically remade, but “Georgia On My Mind” stirs the soul just as it should, a native son musing on, and a German orchestra bursting with, American pride. Deep in the pocket, or pumped up dynamic, this incredible, broad-spectrum lesson in Chuck Leavell history should be required listening.

– Tom Clarke

  • Chuck Leavell With The Frankfurt Radio Big Band
    ‘Chuck Gets Big’
    Label: BMG Records

About Tom Clarke

From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 20 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, and the 45-year timelines and ever-growing family trees of The Allman Brothers Band and Los Lobos.Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage.Tom and his wife Karen raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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