Pianist and ace session player Chuck Leavell's many fans consider him to be a true master of his instrument; his fills and solos possess imagination, lightning-quick twists and turns, imaginative chord voicings, and a very physical attack. His detractors claim he plays far too many notes and plays them loudly, that he cannot be a backing or ensemble player because he always has to stand out. One has to ask this question of the latter group: if these criticisms are accurate, would he be sought out by the Allman Brothers, George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and the Black Crowes (just to name a few)? Back to the Woods: A Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano is a fine collection of 15 standards from the greats of the blues piano canon, with tunes by Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery, Otis Spann, Memphis Slim, Charlie Spand, and Charlie Calhoun, among others. Leavell is backed by Chris Enghauser on upright bass and Louis Romanos on drums throughout, but there is a slew of well-known guests on the session to boot: Danny Barnes plays loads of guitar and banjo, Keith Richards and John Mayer each appear on a couple of tracks (both on Spann's "Boots and Shoes"), and Randall Bramblett plays saxophone on a few more. Carr is obviously the muse here; five of his tunes are included in this mix, including "Mean Mistreater." Other highlights include Barrelhouse Buck McFarland's "I Got to Go Blues," the title track authored by Spand, and the reimagined Skip James number "If You Haven't Any Hay." This is a spirited collection, played and recorded beautifully. If anything, perhaps it's a bit too clean, but that's a trifling. The set also includes song annotations by Leavell and a liner essay by blues historian Larry Cohn.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek