From his early days playing the Night Flight on River Street in Savannah to the last three decades of touring with the Rolling Stones, Chuck Leavell has appeared on record or on stage with the biggest names of rock ’n’ roll, carving out his own unique career as a pianist.

 

Leavell’s peripatetic career has allowed him to shift between projects, bands and sounds for the last four decades. Blues rock, Southern rock and jazz fusion have been the center of a lifetime spent working with artists like the Allman Brothers Band, David Gilmour, John Mayer, The Black Crows, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, The Roots, Dickey Betts and Gov’t Mule.

“I joke that I just can’t seem to keep a job,” Leavell said with a laugh in an interview with Do Savannah. “The truth is, it really has been a story of one thing leads to another. You work with an artist and through that artist, you meet other artists and get some exposure and meet people. I’ve been fortunate that the phone has rung for me many, many times.

“I am sure musicians of all genres would be happy with success in one arena. For me, the joy has been to dance with so many different partners. You always learn something from one artist that you can apply in the future to other things. “

For only the second time, Leavell will showcase a big band project a number of years in the making at the 2018 Savannah Jazz Festival. “Chuck Gets Big,” the headlining show for the 37th annual festival, will feature the Savannah Jazz Orchestra and Leavell performing special arrangements of classic rock ’n’ roll and original pieces as a big band Sept. 29 in Forsyth Park. The concert, as with all jazz fest events every year, is free and open to the public.

It will be his second stop in Savannah this year after headlining the A-Town Get Down Festival in February.

Leavell was invited to do a concert in Frankfurt, Germany, with the Frankfort Radio Big Band some years ago. He sent a number of songs he wanted to perform to the arrangers ahead of his arrival. Three different arrangers created charts for a big band.

“Man, it was just amazing,” Leavell said. “I was so blown away when I heard the charts they had done and the power and the talent of these players. It was really surprising. I said, Chuck, you have to step up your game here!”

The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles and even some of Leavell’s own tunes appeared in the setlist. The show was recorded, but Leavell had just released another album and so he decided to shelf the recordings at the time.

“Earlier this year, I said, let me go back and listen to those files and they blew me away again,” Leavell continued. “I was really pleased with it. The one trick we did, it was so well recorded that we were able to take the audience out of the mix and make it like a studio album. That’s what the result is.”

BMG Records contacted Leavell and asked if he had anything in the works. He sent over the Frankfurt recordings. The label loved it, according to Leavell. They released it earlier this year. When he was trying to figure out promotion for the new album, he got in touch with an old friend.

“My friend Howard Paul, Benedetto [Guitars] president and great great jazz guitarist, said Chuck, there’s a Savannah Jazz Orchestra; if you can get the charts, we could put a gig together,” Leavell said. “That’s what we’ve done. Can’t wait to follow through.

“Savannah Jazz Orchestra is apparently very similar in nature [to Frankfurt Radio Big Band],” Leavell continued. “They are a big band. They’re rock ’n’ rolls songs, or at least some of them are. You've got two Rolling Stones songs in there. Got a couple of Allman Brothers songs. You've got a couple of my own instrumental songs that have been adapted for big band. It’s such a different thing to do this kind of music with this kind of orchestra.”

Savannah is a second home to Leavell, who lives in middle Georgia. His first solo band played the Night Flight, where bands like Jimmy Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Taj Mahal, Steve Earl, and REM played in the in the late 1970s to the late 1980s.

“Had many fun shows there,” Leavell said. “It was a small club. It’s been closed many years now. That and of course, the Allmans and The Sea Level played here a couple of times. We love being in Savannah. It’s two hours from our home in middle Georgia. Once we get a little cabin fever, being in the woods, we jump in the car and come to Savannah and have some fun.”