He may have been born Jon Cleary in Kent, England but he really didn't become Jon Cleary until he crossed the ocean and settled in New Orleans, playing piano at the city's legendary Maple Leaf club, the home away from home of New Orleans piano wizard James Booker. He has been a favorite of mine since I first heard his 1999 release "Moonburn," and though there have only been two releases since then, 2002's "Jon Cleary & the Absolute Gentlemen" and 2004's "Pin Your Spin," both of those records are among the very best New Orleans has to offer, combining the funk of The Meters with Cleary's excellent James Booker-esque chops on the piano and gritty, soul stirring vocals.
Now, just in time for the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Jon Cleary drops "Occapella," a not-so-standard and absolutely brilliant tribute to another Crescent City legend, Allen Toussaint.
"I wouldn't say it's a tribute," Cleary says of Occapella. "On the back of the album I just put 'Having fun with the songs of Allen Toussaint,' which sums up the vibe a bit better."
Cleary began as a guitarist before staying with the piano full time, and his chops on both, not to mention a few other instruments are on full display here, as he takes care of all those duties himself. The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, as well as Dr. John and Bonnie Raitt, also make a guest appearance or two.
The record? Well, it's just fantastic. Cleary kept his song choices deep. Rather than hit Toussaint's chartmakers, he decided on some of the songwriter's lesser known gems like "Let's Get Low Down," recorded by Curley Moore, and The Stokes' "Poor Boy Got To Move," or Viva La Money from Toussaint's own "Southern Nights" LP. It's not all about the deep. Cleary takes brilliant turns on hits like "Southern Nights," creating an exotic shuffle--think Allen Toussaint via Martin Denny--and "What Do You Want The Girl To Do," a song covered by many including Lowell George and Boz Scaggs, which Cleary delivers from the heart.
The record closes with an almost unrecognizable, yet simply stunning solo piano version of the rock and roll standard, "Fortune Teller," that would make the aforementioned James Booker proud.
"Occapella" has been on heavy rotation since I got my grubby little hands on it a few weeks ago. It's a record that I think, in time, will define the great city of New Orleans, like The Meters "Rejuvenation" or Professor Longhair's "Crawfish Fiesta."
Go get it HERE!
In the meantime, please enjoy one of my very favorite Jazz Fest moments. If you squint, you can see me. I'm the one on the left near the guy with the thing.